Democrats and older Iowans would have to adjust their early voting habits the most if a bill passing the Iowa House requires absentee ballots to be in county auditors’ hands by the time polls close on Election Day.
Republicans would see an impact too, legislators say, but they vote in person on Election Day with more frequency than Democrats or those registered for no party, and also Iowans 65 and older, an IowaWatch analysis of voting data in general elections over the last 20 years shows.
Regardless of who feels the impact, Republican and Democratic state legislators trying to amend Iowa’s absentee voter registration law agree that changes are critical because ballots are not being counted when they probably should be.
The reason: U.S. post offices are not putting time-stamped postmarks on many of the absentee ballots. “So we are throwing ballots out, and we don’t want to do that,” state Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, said.
Iowa law says absentee ballots may arrive after an election day if they bear a postmark of up to the day before the scheduled vote.
But a bill that passed the Iowa House 56-41 on March 11 would require that absentee ballots arrive at county auditors’ offices by the time polls close on the election day in order to be counted. An exception would be given to military personnel and their families and others working outside the country who apply for ballots and return them by mail in time to be counted.
A Senate bill says ballots clearly postmarked by the day before an election and received by the elections office by noon the following Monday should be counted, as well as any ballot received by 5 p.m. the day after the election. A decision on whether to vote on the Senate bill or to take up the House bill was pending.
Danielson, chairman of the State Government Committee where the matter now rests, said differences in what the House and Senate propose are not deal breakers. “I think they can actually be resolved,” he said.
State Rep. Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, and floor manager of the bill passing the House, was equally optimistic. “The language of their bill and our bill is similar,” Stanerson said.
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Voting data compiled by the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office show how overwhelmingly Democrats like to vote early. One-half of Democrats voting in the 2014 and 2012 general elections did so with absentee ballots, compared to two of every five Republicans and two of every six Iowa voters declaring no political party preference.
That voting includes going to satellite stations before the election day and handing in ballots to election officials then, so those ballots arrive on time.
Numbers are slightly higher when political party affiliation is not considered and the focus is on age: 54.5 percent of Iowans age 65 or older who voted in the 2014 general election used absentee ballots; 58 percent did so in 2012.
But many county auditors, who serve as their county’s elections commissioners, say they’ve had to toss out absentee ballots because the envelopes have not been postmarked.
The Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which asked for legislation ensuring that ballots arrive by the election day, has complained that the U.S. Postal Service has not put postmarks with dates on ballots, as required by Iowa law for the ballots to be counted.
“The lack of a ‘clear postmark’ on return absentee ballots is a concern due to inconsistent postmarking practices throughout the state,” Clinton County Auditor Erin Van Lancker wrote in a position paper for the county auditor association.
Stanerson said the House bill was a response to the auditors’ complaints. “We ran with what the auditors’ language was,” he said.
“There was no political motivation,” Stanerson said. “This was brought to us from auditors across the state.”
Stanerson said the goal is to count absentee votes that otherwise would be disqualified for lack of an adequate, dated postmark. “In no way was this bill put out there to disenfranchise folks,” he said.
Several Democrats disagreed during floor debate in the House. The Republican-led House voted down a Democratic attempt to allow ballots through an authorized postal service by 5 p.m. the day after an election.
How absentee ballots are accepted has become increasingly important because the use of early or mailed absentee ballots has grown dramatically over the past 20 years. In Iowa’s 1996 general election, 18 percent of Democrats, 17 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of those declaring no party used absentee ballots, records show.
A push by county auditors across the state to get more voters to the polls has fueled a lot of the increase in absentee voting but the political parties have promoted the practice as well.
Danielson said he knows the impact of absentee ballots firsthand. He won his 2008 Senate election against Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, by a 22-vote margin delivered in absentee ballots.
Former Rep. Renee Schulte, R-Cedar Rapids, beat Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, that same year by 13 votes before Staed won re-election over Schulte in 2012. More recently, state Rep. Darrel Branhagen, R-Decorah, defeated Democrat Rick Edwards by 27 votes in 2014. And here is a close one: Sen. Mark Chalgren, R-Wapello, beat Democrat Keith Kreiman by only 10 votes in 2010.
Carol Olson, Iowa’s deputy secretary of elections for elections, said Secretary of State Paul Pate’s main focus is on promoting voting and maintaining its integrity but he has not made the pending change a legislative priority. “We have not taken a position on that bill,” Olson said.
Danielson said he has nothing by high praise for Pate’s approach, which comes after battles Democrats had with former Secretary of State Matt Schultz when Schultz launched a controversial investigation into what Schultz said was voter fraud.
Democrats considered Schultz’s approach to be an assault on disenfranchised voters, and a costly one in which Schultz spent $250,000 to get six convictions of illegal voting. “That was a sad chapter in Iowa history,” Danielson said.
TOSSING VOTES BECAUSE OF MISSING POSTMARKS
Lancker wrote in his position paper about being forced to reject a ballot in a 2011 school election after an administrative rules change that year prohibited auditors from accepting absentee ballots accompanied by an affidavit signed before the election day but in an envelope lacking a postmark.
Lancker wrote that he checked absentee ballot return envelopes and found that while 15 envelopes had a postmark, 96 did not. Ballots among those that were received on Election Day or before were not disqualified, he wrote.
He then checked records for the 2010 general election. Only 229 of the 4,239 absentee ballots – 5 percent – returned by mail had been postmarked, he wrote.
“Although the postmark rule only applies to those absentee ballots that are received after Election Day, the Code of Iowa is depending on a system that is not consistent,” he wrote. “The question must be considered: ‘Is this fair to the voter?’”
That, and examples from other counties, led the state county auditors association to establish what the position paper called “a sure-count deadline” for absentee ballots to arrive at their offices – the day of the election.
Danielson said Senate Democrats would favor allowing mailed absentee ballots to arrive at least a few days after the election day, whether it be the next day on Wednesday or through the week until Friday. “I think the House version cuts it off too soon, even if it has a postmark,” he said.
Danielson said another question to be addressed in the Senate will be whether or not a county auditor can verify that a vote received late should have been eligible and count it. Another concern, he said, would be whether or not allowing veterans to mail ballots that arrive late raises issues of equal protection under the law, given that other Iowans could not have that opportunity.
But Danielson said he thinks the House, led by Republicans, and the Democrat-controlled Senate can work on their different approaches because they agree on getting away from relying on a postmark on mailed absentee ballots.
“We believe we need to solve the postmark issue. We will work with the House on that,” he said. “I think there’s a solution to be had here.”
This IowaWatch story was published by The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.