Counties may get extra time to prepare for the counting of absentee ballots

By: - September 16, 2020 8:00 am

The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office expects that on election night Iowans will know who carried the state in the presidential contest.(Photo by iStock /Getty Images Plus)

Despite the anticipated difficulties associated with the upcoming general election, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office expects that on election night, Iowans will know who carried the state in the presidential contest.

“I think we’ll know which way Iowa has gone on election night,” Kevin Hall, spokesman for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, said Tuesday. “We anticipate it all should go smoothly and,  at least in the case of Iowa, we should know before we go to bed Tuesday night, Nov. 3, at least how the results in Iowa are shaping up — keeping in mind that all results are unofficial until the post-election audit.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of ballots are likely to be cast by mail in advance of Election Day. But county auditors won’t be able to get much of a head-start on the counting, as the state prohibits those ballots from being tabulated prior to the day preceding Election Day.

Even so, Hall says, most of Iowa’s votes will likely be counted on time to produce timely results.

“The state law for general elections allows for county auditors to begin counting the ballots the Monday before the election,” Hall said. “So, at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 2, they can begin counting ballots. Secretary Pate is working with the Iowa Legislative Council to try, through an emergency directive, to give county auditors more time. We have heard the auditors’ concerns and totally believe they are legitimate concerns just due to the volume of absentee requests. So we’re working with the Iowa Legislative Council to get them more time — at least to start preparing the ballots to get them counted. And we should know in the next week or so whether they’ll be able to do that.”

If the council gives its approval, Hall said, it’s expected that the counties will have a few extra days to begin the work of preparing to count ballots, but the count itself still wouldn’t begin until Monday.

“We’ve given them funds, as well, in case they need extra people to come in and help with that process,” Hall said. “Secretary Pate’s office distributed to each county $10,000 as a base amount, plus $600 per precinct. That can be used to supplement their staff if they need more hands on deck to help with, you know, poll workers or preparing the absentee ballots – whatever they might need.”

During the 2020 primary elections in June, Pate issued an emergency directive that enabled the counties to begin counting absentee ballots a day early, just as they are allowed to do in the general elections, Hall said.

Some political observers have suggested the national results of the 2020 presidential election might not be known for several days after the election. That’s partly because some states, by law, can’t begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day, and some must wait until after the polls close to even begin that process.

“I think in Iowa we’re better off than some of these other states,” Hall said. “We’re in pretty good shape, and our state is used to absentee voting. Usually, in a general election, about 40 percent of Iowans vote absentee. We think that obviously it’s going to be more this time. But, you know, the June primary was a pretty good trial-run for that, where we had record high turnouts, so we think we’re going to be prepared and hopefully we’ll be able to give (the counties) a couple of extra days to begin preparing the absentee ballots to be counted.”

Many Iowans have already received in the mail more than one request form for an absentee ballot, with some coming from county auditors, some from Pate’s office, and some from political parties or politically active third-party organizations.

Hall said voters — with the exception of those in Johnson, Linn and Woodbury counties, where the county auditors’ absentee-ballot request forms have been ruled improper — can return any one of the request forms they have received in order to be assured of receiving a ballot in response.

Returning more than one request form for a ballot won’t invalidate the request or raise concerns about fraud, Hall said, but it is likely to create a bit of additional work for counties since the auditors will have to review and then disregard redundant requests for ballots.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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