Iowa auditors report lower absentee ballot requests, early voting numbers

By: - October 25, 2022 4:59 pm

Auditors in some of Iowa's largest counties are seeing a decrease in early voting requests. (Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

Election officials from some of Iowa’s largest counties are seeing fewer absentee ballot requests and lower early voting counts.

Monday marked the final day for Iowa voters to apply for an absentee ballot to be mailed to them following new laws for early voting passed in February 2021 by the Iowa Legislature. The window for absentee ballots being mailed from auditors’ offices and early voting in person was shortened from 29 to 20 days before Election Day. 

Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald said the change has created a tight window for early voting, lowering the number of ballot requests while increasing the number of residents coming into the office with questions. 

“A lot of the confusion came from when we started (early voting),” he said. “We had voters coming in and being told they couldn’t vote because we hadn’t started.”

Nationally, more than 9.4 million voters had cast their ballots by mail or in person as of Monday, according to the United States Elections Project. That includes more than 36,000 Iowans.

Fitzgerald said Polk County had received 39,636 early voting requests as of Monday evening, including early in person, mail, satellite, and Uniformed and Overseas citizens voting requests. He said the number is roughly 30% lower than at the same point in the 2018 and 2014 elections. 

Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said some Iowans will miss deadlines because of the new regulations.

“Election law changes almost every year, so it doesn’t allow voters to get used to the new laws because they keep changing the goal posts,” he said. “If people aren’t paying attention, they’re going to miss things.”

Fewer ballots but heavier early-voting traffic

Polk isn’t alone in seeing decreasing numbers following the changes in early voting laws. Travis Weipert, Johnson County auditor, said he’s not only seeing decreased numbers across the board compared to 2018, but the flow of ballots has altered significantly as well. 

“Right now, we’re seeing an increase from the steady flow we’re used to in years past,” Weipert, a Democrat, said. “It requires more staffing.”

To mitigate issues, Fitzgerald said additional parking has been opened for people looking to vote early in person this year with the shorter window. 

Weipert also said more residents came to the Johnson County Auditor’s Office looking to vote before the Oct. 19 starting date. There has been an increase in questions overall this election cycle compared to in recent midterms, he said.

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder said the county is almost 5,000 ballot requests behind where it was in 2018, as of Monday. There were 9,888 requests by Friday, with members of the Democratic and Republican party and those registered as no party/independent all down in requests.

His office has hired additional temporary workers to ensure the voting process is easy for voters this year. 

“We’re very busy and we have a lot of temporary staff to support the election work,” Veeder, a Democrat, said. “We’ve been running people through absentee voting, I think, very efficiently to this point. We have plans for what to do if lines continue to grow, which we expect.”

Rural counties 

Rural Keokuk County, however, has seen a similar number of absentee requests. Auditor Christy Bates, a Republican, wrote in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch that the 477 requests as of Monday morning were normal for a gubernatorial election. 

Madison County, another predominantly rural county, is nearly 800 ballots shy of where they were in 2018, Auditor Shelley Kaster, a Republican, said.

She said people have been showing up in person and requesting mail-in ballots steadily, regardless of the shortened time frame.

“It’s been a steady stream of people coming in since Wednesday,” she said. “The line started at 8 and didn’t stop until 4:30. There really wasn’t a break at any point, and the same happened today [Monday]. It’s a bit hard to keep up.” 

Residents of Madison County called Kaster and her colleagues on Friday and Monday, scrambling to get their absentee request forms in before the deadline of 5 p.m. Oct. 19. She said her office has four full-time staff members and one part time and the team has shifted its workload to focus on the shorter voting cycle for this election and still maintain their other responsibilities.

Satellite locations cut

Election laws also changed to require satellite locations to be established by petitions from organizations rather than at the discretion of county auditors. 

Veeder said his county has lost some satellite locations and other locations are open for fewer hours, including the at the University of Northern Iowa’s Maucker Union.

Weipert said Johnson County, which includes the University of Iowa’s campus, will not have a satellite location at the university’s hospital or clinics. The site was removed during the 2020 election because of COVID-19 but typically is a busy voting location. 

Kaster said Madison County isn’t known for its satellite locations, but it has lost the one it had in 2018 in Bevington. No satellite options were offered during the 2020 or 2022 election cycle. 

Satellite voting in Scott County, however, has not altered, Auditor Kerri Tompkins said. The county has five sites this year — as it has in the past — and offered a satellite voting option during the primary.  

“Right now, we have 1,776 votes from satellites this year,” Tompkins, a Republican, said. “We’re mimicking the same days and hours as we did in 2020, so the places and days have not changed, and it will continue for the next few weeks.”

Turnout predictions are mixed

Scott County has seen more opportunities for satellites and is working to get a 50% turnout, which would place the voter turnout between 2018’s 55% and 2014’s 48%. The county is set to meet its goals for absentee and early voting making up a fourth of the turnout for the Nov. 8 election, Tompkins said. 

Veeder said it isn’t clear how all the election changes will affect voter turnout across the state, but he plans to examine how the laws affected the election and hopes his office has prepared adequately for the changes.

“It’s difficult to evaluate early voting right now,” he said. “… It’s going pretty well, but when you look at the numbers, you see there’s a decrease from four years ago and it does make you wonder if it means we will have more people vote in person in the next few weeks or on Election Day or does it mean fewer people will vote overall? It concerns me from an administrative perspective.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.