Iowa Absentee Ballot Requests Breaking Records; Here’s Where They’re From

By Pat Rynard

April 28, 2020

Iowa’s 2020 primary is certain to hit a record for the number of voters casting their ballot by mail. As of Monday, 41,886 absentee ballots had already been requested for the June 2 primary, more than the 38,218 total absentee/early votes in the entirety of the 2016 primary.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, few people are motivated to stand in lines to vote in-person. Many counties are planning on consolidating their in-person polling sites. And state and local election officials have made it clear that they want people to vote by mail for this election, even if the in-person option is still available.

But most importantly, unlike in several other Republican-led states, Iowa’s Secretary of State Paul Pate has made a good faith effort to make it much easier for voters to cast their ballot for the primary. He decided to extend the absentee ballot period to 40 days, and his office is mailing out absentee ballot request forms to every single registered Iowan. He has also kept open the possibility of simply mailing out ballots to every registered Iowan for the general election (you have to do the request forms for the primary, so that voters can check the box to choose which party’s primary they want to vote in).

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The number of absentee ballots requested as of Monday were nearly as many as the total requested for the entire 2016 primary election and weren’t too far off from 2018.

44,016 absentee ballots were requested by election day of the 2016 primary, and 38,218 Iowans ended up casting an absentee ballot through the mail or early in-person in that election (not everyone returns their absentee ballot).

By the primary election day in 2018, 55,421 Iowans had requested to vote absentee or had already voted early. A total of 50,868 eventually voted by absentee/early in 2018.

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However, those numbers are a little deceiving since they include anyone who voted early in-person. When you vote early at your county auditor’s office or at an early satellite voting location in Iowa, you do so on an absentee ballot, so it shows up on the requested/sent/voted tab of the absentee ballot figures. Those auditor office and satellite location votes typically account for a notable percentage of absentee ballots.

Almost the entirety of the ballots requested for the 2020 primary so far have been the actual, mailed-to-your-home type of absentee ballot. Just 38 people statewide have already voted as of Monday, so those were either people with extremely fast mail turnaround time or it was a couple of election officials voting early (in-person early voting doesn’t open until May 4).

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What’s more impressive is that this is presumably before the first big wave of returned requests from the Secretary of State’s mailings. Pate has said voters should be getting their request form at the start of this week.

So if Iowa’s absentee ballot request numbers are already surpassing the totals from one recent primary election’s eventual early votes, imagine how high the totals will go after the full, statewide request mailer hits.

Campaigns and political parties will often send out their own mass absentee ballot mailers, though that’s usually for the general election and targeted to specific voters who always vote early or are less-likely to vote. Every single registered Iowan getting an absentee ballot request form in their mailbox for the primary is unprecedented, especially for the No Party votes, with the resulting total requests and votes likely to be unprecedented as well.

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Iowa does have some major competitive primaries this year, including the Democratic U.S. Senate primary and the large Republican primaries in the 2nd and 4th congressional districts (Steve King’s primary is particularly interesting), though they are relatively comparable to some of the primaries Iowa has seen in recent years.

However, campaigns at all levels this year are figuring out how to adjust to the new reality, and field efforts focused on absentee balloting are certainly among them.

At this early stage in absentee requests, it may be easier to see individual campaign or local election officials’ efforts to boost vote-by-mail participation. By the time the statewide mailer comes in, numbers will get boosted across the board, though campaigns’ field efforts may produce noticeable spikes in requests as we get closer to the election.

Starting Line compiled the county-by-county data over this weekend to see which areas of the state are seeing large, early absentee request numbers (you can see the spreadsheet here). The numbers for these maps and charts are from the weekend, though the Monday numbers didn’t produce that large of movement. You can see those here. Dubuque County saw another big jump in requests, but they already were doing very well.

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Here’s the map of percent of registered Democrats for each county that have requested a ballot:

And here’s the top 15 list:

County % Dems Request
Montgomery 43.9%
Page 25.1%
Clay 20.3%
Winneshiek 19.3%
Dubuque 14.7%
Decatur 14.1%
Audubon 11.9%
Linn 11.2%
Shelby 10.3%
Kossuth 8.5%
Boone 8.3%
Lyon 8.2%
Iowa 6.0%
Cherokee 5.4%
Clinton 4.9%

Here’s what things look like for Republican requests:

And their top 15 counties:

County % GOP Request
Montgomery 35.7%
Winneshiek 27.3%
Page 23.4%
Clay 16.3%
Dubuque 12.2%
Cherokee 10.8%
Kossuth 9.5%
Decatur 9.4%
Linn 9.4%
Ringgold 8.7%
Shelby 8.5%
Audubon 7.8%
Woodbury 5.8%
Lyon 5.8%
Clarke 4.9%

As you can see, counties where Democratic requests are high also typically see strong Republican request percentages. That seems to point to local efforts by election officials, as opposed to campaigns. Oftentimes, you’ll see some rural county that has lots of Republican primary requests and few Democratic ones because there’s a competitive sheriff’s primary on the GOP side, or vice versa. That’s not the case here, which seems to point to local efforts.

In Montgomery County, for example, which leads the state in absentee ballot requests both as a percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans, the local newspaper printed the absentee request form in their paper for residents to use.

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It’s difficult to tell how much competitive local legislative races are having on the numbers, which usually can drive up requests if they have a strong field operation.

Senate District 24, where Jerry Behn is retiring, has a four-way Republican primary and a two-way Democratic one. 8.3% of Boone County Democrats and 4.4% of Boone Republicans have requested an absentee ballot, putting the Democrats in the top 15 and the Republicans just outside of it, but still doing well. The other counties in the district, however — Greene, Hamilton and Webster — don’t have noticeable bumps. Iowa County has good absentee numbers, where there’s primaries for both parties for SD 38.

But in other areas, there’s not a lot of correlation between legislative primaries and early requests. Des Moines County is home to the Democratic SD 44 primary, but under 1% of registered Democrats have requested a ballot so far there.

One of the most competitive legislative primaries is in SD 22, where Charles Schneider is retiring and three Democrats are running, two of which have raised substantial money. But just 241 Democrats have requested a ballot there, or just over 1% of the registered Democrats.

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Over in Johnson County, the HD 85 Democratic primary is getting interesting, where incumbent Rep. Vicki Lensing is getting a surprisingly strong challenge from Christina Bohannan. However, only 1.7% of registered Democrats have requested an absentee there so far.

We’ll keep a close eye on these legislative races and others as things progress to see where requests may grow quickly as campaign teams call and text voters to encourage them to send in their ballot request form.

On the congressional side of things, there’s no interesting trends yet.

CD Dem % GOP %
1 8.4% 5.2%
2 1.6% 0.9%
3 1.9% 2.3%
4 3.3% 3.0%

The 1st District leads the state, but that’s largely due to huge numbers coming out of Dubuque County and decent ones fro Linn. One would think that the Republican numbers in the 4th District would be high with King’s primary, but they’re not yet.

If you have thoughts or observations of why particular counties may be doing well early on with requests, let us know in the comments.


by Pat Rynard, with reporting by Adam Henderson
Posted 4/28/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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