How Local Iowa Election Officials Are Confronting COVID-19 Challenge

As the country grapples with a new way of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, many eyes are turning to how the United States’ elections system adapts to the new reality. Voters gathering in lines to cast a ballot at polling stations present an obvious risk for transmission of the virus, forcing difficult decisions that balance safety and the continuance of American democracy.

Some states like Louisiana and Georgia have already postponed their primary elections for the presidential race. Others, like Illinois and Florida, are moving forward with their elections being held tomorrow.

Here in Iowa, the next major election is the June 2 primary. It should see a relatively good turnout this year given there are highly competitive primaries in the Democratic U.S. Senate race, two of the Republican congressional contests and many local state legislative primaries.

But there are also several local special elections between now and the primary, and how counties are approaching those could provide broader lessons to election officials across the state.

Woodbury County has a special election for their newly-vacant county supervisor district, to be held on April 14. County Auditor Pat Gill is strongly encouraging residents to vote by mail, sending out an absentee ballot request form to every voter, along with a letter headlined “VOTE AT HOME.”

“The Woodbury County Auditor’s Office has made the decision to conduct the April 14, 2020 special election to fill a vacancy on the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors essentially as a vote by mail election,” the letter reads (see front and back here).

In Iowa, anyone can vote by mail with no excuse needed. However, you first must request an absentee ballot through a form to receive one. Typically, those aren’t sent out en masse like Woodbury County is now doing. Gill asked the Secretary of State’s office if he could simply send out absentee ballots to everyone, but was told the law doesn’t allow for it.

Voters in Woodbury County will have very limited options otherwise. Gill plans to reduce the number of polling places to just two in the entire county of 102,000 people for the April special election. One will be near downtown Sioux City, the other in the middle of the county out by more rural towns. People who need to register are encouraged to use those. For this election, the ballot is very simple with just one county-wide race, so there’s no need for precinct-specific ballots; voters anywhere in the county can use either location.

Gill cited his concern for their older poll workers for the reduced locations.

“We’re very concerned because our typical election officials are mostly from the most susceptible group that we’re being told we need to protect,” Gill told Starting Line. “It goes against my grain to tell people not to go to the vote centers.”

There’s also discussions underway of what to do with the county courthouse, where the elections office is headquartered.

“[Voters] can come into the office, but we’re reserving that mostly for people who aren’t registered or have registration issues,” Gill said.

Over in Black Hawk County, a special election is set for March 24 to fill a vacant Cedar Falls City Council seat. Five candidates are competing for that race. Here, election officials have had even less time to prepare for the coronavirus’ impact on daily life. They’ve been working with the Secretary of State’s office, hoping they’ll be able to extend the absentee ballot request deadline to the end of this week.

Black Hawk County officials were already planning to reduce the number of polling sites to five, instead of the city’s usual 15, due to the expected turnout of a city special election.

“We are making plans for what we can do to keep sanitary conditions there through the day,” County Auditor Grant Veeder told Starting Line. “This is all still, as you know, in a state of flux with new information coming almost hourly, so we’re trying to remain flexible and think through things best we can, and the consequences of any actions.”

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In Clinton County, Auditor Eric Van Lancker put out a statement encouraging voters to vote by mail in the June primary.

“We aren’t sure what this situation will be when Election Day gets here,” Van Lancker said. “We hope all of our precinct election officials will be able to work that day, but we just don’t know at this point so we will reduce the number of polling locations that we will need to staff.”


by Pat Rynard
Posted 3/16/20

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