Allow Permanent Early Ballot Requests In Iowa To Boost Turnout

Guest post by Jamie Fitzgerald

While speaking recently at a neighborhood association meeting, I was asked why voters have to fill out a request for an early ballot for every election. The obvious response was – “That’s what the Code of Iowa requires us to have voter do in order to receive a ballot.”

Not surprisingly, the constituent pushed back, stating that it is a huge waste of time and money for campaigns to mail him multiple ballot requests knowing that he was going to vote early at some point during the election, as he noted he always does.

After the meeting, I thought about this issue a little more in depth and reflected on the many mail trays of duplicate, triplicate and sometime more ballot requests that we are sent during general elections. Voters are getting inundated and bombarded with requests from all angles – candidates, local parties and now so-called Super PACs.

Iowa has an excellent and efficient election process. The Legislature has generally taken small steps to change the processes that dictate how the elections are run.

The major law change that I would consider widespread and sweeping occurred in 2007 with the passage of the same day registration law. Iowa became the seventh state to enact same day voter registration. This law allows an unregistered voter to provide identification at the polls and vote on Election Day. If the person does not have identification, a voter whose name is already on the voter rolls in that precinct can attest that the same day registrant lives where they claim.

Prior to the same day registration laws enactment, voters had to pre-register at least 10 days in advance to be able to participate. This affected many people who had moved over county lines and did not re-register. For example, a voter that lived east of 60th Street in West Des Moines that moved further west in West Des Moines would many times not know that they had to re-register to vote to be able to participate because they had moved from Polk to Dallas County.

While this small change doesn’t seem like a big deal, Iowa had over 16,000 voters utilize this in the 2014 General Election, including over 900 voters in Dallas County.

Iowa has always been around the top five states in terms of turnout percentage for presidential elections, but we still trail our northern neighbor who is always number one in the ranking. In 2012, Minnesotans had a 76.1% turnout; Wisconsin was second with a 73.2% turnout whereas Iowa was fifth with a 70.2% turnout.

I believe that one of the best ways to increase voter turnout in Iowa would be for the Legislature to implement a system to allow ongoing (or permanent) early ballots across the state. This would allow a voter to check a box that they would like to receive a ballot for every election and one would be sent to them for every election on the first day of voting.

Permanent early ballots are currently implemented in six states, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey and Utah. In addition, nine other states offer a limited number of residents the opportunity to sign up for an ongoing early ballot for a variety of reasons, including those that live in remote areas of Alaska, military personnel and their families and those who are permanently disabled.

Voters would have to opt in to receive these ballots and would have the same rules apply to them as regular early voters. If a ballot is sent to the voter and is returned to election officials as “undeliverable,” the voter will become inactive and be removed from the program. As with all mailed ballots, they cannot be forwarded by the post office to a different address. Voters could also “opt out” at any time that they wish.

Iowans are voting early more often, whether by mail, satellite voting stations or in the County Auditor offices. According to the information on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, Iowans cast 475,402 early votes in 2014 and 689,661 Iowans voted early in 2012.

By establishing a system to make it easier for voters to receive early ballots, Iowa can increase voter turnout and make elections less expensive. Who knows? If the Legislature and Governor make this improvement in our election laws, we might beat Wisconsin and Minnesota in voter turnout in the next election!


by Jamie Fitzgerald
Polk County Auditor
Posted 10/18/15

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