Here’s what has Iowa election officials spooked as early voting begins

Oct. 5 is the first day Iowa voters can return absentee ballots. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

It’s Election Day in Iowa — or the start of it, anyway. Oct. 5 is the first day Iowans can cast their votes for the 2020 general election, either by returning absentee ballots or voting at satellite stations or their county auditor’s office.

This day comes amid the most tumultuous times in memory. President Trump’s hospital stay for COVID-19 and positive tests for at least four U.S. senators merely ramps up anxiety and uncertainty for Americans.

So I asked two of Iowa’s top election officials what, out of all the things to worry about heading into the official Nov. 3 Election Day, is keeping them up at night.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. (Photo courtesy Iowa Secretary of State)

First, let me mention one important thing they are NOT sweating over. In separate interviews, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, and Roxanna Moritz, Scott County auditor and president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, a Democrat, said voters in Iowa who want to vote absentee can rely on the U.S. Postal Service.

“I assure you that the mail service can get the job done,” Pate said. “And we have a great track record here in Iowa, this is a very well-run state when it comes to the mail service, we’ve had good dialogue and work with them very closely.”

Moritz agreed.  “I don’t have concerns with the Postal Service,” she said.

Both Pate and Moritz said they are confident in the state’s absentee ballot tracking system, which allows voters to see when their absentee ballot request was received by their county auditor, the date their ballot was mailed to them, and the date the auditor received the completed ballot.

The return envelopes have Intelligent Mail barcodes, so as soon as the first mail center touches that ballot, “we know it,” Pate said. The barcodes eliminate the need for a physical postmark on the envelope and ensure votes will be counted even if they arrive after Nov. 3, he said.

People who are still worried about the mail will have a variety of alternatives for voting. They can go to the polls and cast their ballot on Election Day, as many are used to doing. Just be sure to check first to make sure your polling place hasn’t moved, as some precincts may be consolidated or locations changed since the last election. Curbside voting is available at polling places.

People also can vote in person at the county auditor’s office starting Oct. 5, or hand-deliver their absentee ballots to the auditor’s office. Some counties have drop boxes for ballots outside county buildings.

Here’s what does have Pate and Moritz a little spooked: The prevalence of incorrect and untrue information targeting voters, especially on social media.

Pate said he’s doesn’t believe bad actors will be able to hack into Iowa’s voting system and change a single vote.  “But they are very busy. They have been very effective on misinformation, and disinformation. And sadly, they’re getting a little too good at it. And that’s a battle we all are in,” he said.

International adversaries such as China, North Korea and others are “putting a ton of money into this effort,” Pate said. “And the end-game goal is, they want you to lose confidence in our elections’ integrity. They want us to say, ‘Hey, it’s not my senator, it’s not my president.’”

Roxanna Moritz is the Scott County auditor.

Moritz casts some blame for confusion on Americans’ reliance on national cable networks instead of local newspapers and news channels for information about election rules and procedures. Every state has different laws, she noted, so it’s impossible to have a national conversation about election processes.

But she’s also concerned about more sinister disinformation campaigns. “There’s really been, unfortunately, the whole attitude to sow doubt and outright conversations of destroying the integrity of our elections,” she said. “We take it very personally as commissioners of elections, because we really just want to do the right thing by law to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be safe, has the opportunity to cast a vote, and whoever wins, wins. But sowing the doubt in elections, and the integrity of our elections. I’ve never seen like I’ve seen this year.”

So how do to avoid falling victim to those who want nothing more than to scare you out of exercising your right to vote?

Choose your information sources carefully:  The best places to look for answers to your questions about registering and voting are the Iowa Secretary of State’s office website and its user-friendly Voter Ready Iowa site, and your county auditor (search for contact information here.)

Be skeptical of social media:  Don’t automatically trust what your social-media contacts are posting and for heaven’s sake, check it out before you repost or share any information about the election.  (Or any other topic, for that matter.) International efforts to sow doubt and fear among Americans through disinformation campaigns have been well-documented. Don’t do their work for them.

Make a plan now for when and how you will vote:  Don’t wait until the morning of Nov. 3. Make sure now that you’re registered to vote at your current address. If you’re not, you can register online or by mail by Oct. 24 or at your precinct polling place on Election Day.

Decide whether you will vote in person or absentee. If you want to vote absentee, you need to first fill out and return an absentee ballot request form to your county auditor by Oct. 24. If you plan to vote in person, make sure to check the location of your precinct, plan your transportation and bring your ID. There’s a list of acceptable voter IDs at Voter Ready Iowa.

Don’t panic. Just vote.