Election officials in some of Iowa’s largest counties are reporting that hundreds of voters missed the deadline to request absentee ballots ahead of the June 7 primary.
In four of Iowa’s largest counties — Polk, Linn, Scott and Black Hawk — a total of 461 voters’ requests for absentee ballots were denied that would have arrived on time before last year’s new law, county auditors said.
The Iowa Legislature changed the deadline for requesting absentee ballots during the 2021 legislative session. When the bill passed in February 2021, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said that the 2020 election was a success but the bill was meant to further strengthen Iowa’s voting procedures, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported.
“It is my view that government should be run like a business … You look at what you did right, what you did wrong, and you make improvements,” Kaufmann said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here today.”
County auditors are responsible for conducting elections. Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder and Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, both Democrats, said they opposed rules passed by the Legislature last year or found them to be detrimental.
“I think they are making it harder for people to vote absentee,” Veeder said. “I think that was largely the purpose in mind when they were passed. And I’d like to see a lot of them changed back.”
Scott County Auditor Kerri Tompkins and Page County Auditor Melissa Wellhausen, both Republicans, didn’t comment specifically on 2021 election changes passed by the Legislature. Tompkins said she thinks Iowa is a “gold star state in regards to election laws.”
“I think that we kind of just take the approach in our office that once something goes into effect and is the law, we just try to move forward with it,” Wellhausen said.
A new deadline
Under the 2021 law, voters must make sure that their county auditor’s office receives their application form for an absentee ballot 15 days before the election. For at least eight days after that, county auditors are required to tell the late applicants ways that they can vote.
“Most of the people don’t vote in city and school elections. And even more don’t vote in primary elections,” Fitzgerald said. “So a lot of these folks that are going through and realizing [there are these] changes are people that pay attention to the process.”
Before the 2021 law, the deadline to request an absentee was 10 days before a general election, which is May 28 this year, a Saturday. As the June 7 primary election approaches, county auditors say that they are turning down dozens of absentee ballot requests that would have been on time in 2020.
A voter's physical absentee ballot request had to be in the Election Office by 5PM on May 23.— Jamie Fitzgerald (@Polkauditorfitz) May 25, 2022
Past two days mail -
May 24 mail - 0 late requests
May 25 mail - 118 late requests (76 D, 40 R and 2 NP)
These voters will be getting letters stating they cannot be sent a ballot
Fitzgerald said 163 voters’ requests for absentee ballots were denied by May 27 because of the new deadline. The same was true for about 161 requests in Scott County, 82 requests in Linn County and 55 requests in Black Hawk County, county auditors reported.
Voters who missed the deadline to request an absentee ballot could vote early in person at the auditor’s office or a satellite location, or make plans to vote in person on Election Day.
Also under the new law, Iowans’ absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, with a few exceptions. Before, ballots that were postmarked the day before Election Day would be counted.
“And that might take some getting used to by people,” said Veeder, who posted the following reminder on Twitter.
Absentee voters: TWO THINGS. (1) The BHC courthouse is open Saturday from 8am to 4pm for voting. (2) If you received a ballot by mail, RETURN IT IMMEDIATELY. IT MUST BE RECEIVED BY 8PM ON TUESDAY. Further information here: https://t.co/BfRO3PnFPx pic.twitter.com/XRYNg3n0RK— Black Hawk County Auditor and Elections (@bhcauditor) June 3, 2022
Fitzgerald noted the impact that missing a deadline can have on local elections.
“When you look at our 2021 city and school election, along with the 2022 special election, half the people in the city election that missed the deadline by four days — didn’t vote,” Fitzgerald said. “In the special election, including Ankeny where there’s a 20-vote difference, two-thirds of those people didn’t vote.”
The 3/29/22 special election in Polk County had 5,742 voters cast ballots.— Jamie Fitzgerald (@Polkauditorfitz) April 5, 2022
112 voters sent their request for an absentee ballot to be mailed to them after the new 2021 deadline, which would have been good in 2020.
74 of the 112 voters that missed the new deadline did not vote
A shorter window for early voting
The 2021 election law also reduced the time allotted for early and absentee voting. Twenty days before the election, auditors can start sending out ballots and open in-person polling locations. This year, that was May 18. Before the new law, early voting could start 29 days before the election.
The law leaves a five-day window between when auditors can start mailing out ballots and when requests for ballots are due. Fitzgerald said this will create a greater workload during the general election, and Veeder’s office plans to have more staff on hand to process absentee ballot requests in the fall.
Ringgold County auditor Amanda Waske, a Republican, said the May 23 deadline gives voters more time to receive their ballots. But the deadline is also confusing for early voters, she said.
“So [voters] hear ballots are going out on the 18th. [They think], ‘So I have plenty of time to request a ballot be mailed,’” Waske said. “So that was really the struggle with that window.”
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat who is running for Iowa secretary of state, said his office has had absentee ballot request forms printed in a county newspaper, providing forms for voters without printers and Internet access. He said this brought in about 38% of requests. However, he expects plenty of late requests in this fall’s election.
“My forecast is that the general election will be a much larger election, there will be a lot more participation than there is in the primary,” Miller said. “My guess is we [Linn County] will have close to a thousand late requests, and potentially four (hundred) to five hundred people won’t vote.”
Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: email@example.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.