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Auditors Get More Time To Process Absentee Ballots Ahead Of Election Day

A sign marks the location of a polling place Aug. 14 in Janesville, Wis.
County election officials will get more time to process absentee ballots ahead of the November election.

County auditors will get more time to process absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, under a plan unanimously approved by Iowa’s Legislative Council on Friday. With a flood of mail-in ballots expected due to the coronavirus pandemic, the change comes in response to concerns that officials may be overwhelmed on election night.

Under state law, election officials can start tabulating absentee ballots the day before Election Day.

Under the change approved Friday, they’ll be able to start processing those ballots the Saturday before Election Day, October 31st. On that day, designated election workers will be able to start opening the envelopes that contain the absentee ballots, but not begin counting the actual ballots, explains Molly Widen, legal counsel for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.

“During this extra time, auditors can have their board open absentee ballot affidavit and separate the voted ballot, which will still be contained in a secrecy envelope, from the affidavit envelope itself,” Widen said. “If a county auditor takes advantage of the time on Saturday October 31, they would likely be able to begin tabulating earlier on Monday before the election.”

A change some auditors see as helpful but insufficient

This may sound somewhat insignificant, but auditors say getting this kind of head start is a big deal, during an election that is expected to draw record levels of mail-in ballots.

Still, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller says the change is insufficient and does not fix the larger problem: the potential for county election officials to be overwhelmed by absentee ballots.

"I had 46 hours to count prior to the directive and I have 46 hours to count the ballots after the directive," Miller told IPR, warning that the current timeline leaves little room for error or technical difficulties.

"Forty-six hours provides us with no contingency for any failure anywhere in the state and especially in the big counties that are being inundated by absentee ballots," he said.

He has been pushing for additional days to actually count absentee ballots, not simply to open the outer envelopes that contain them. He filed a formal request for an administrative rule change with Pate’s office earlier this month.

“I’d like to be able to report everything we possibly can at 9 p.m., starting at 9 p.m. on election night. And I think in order to do that, we need to be able to start the process maybe as early as the Friday before, just to give us a little cushion,” Miller told IPR earlier this month.

Miller says if election staff don’t get additional time to count the ballots, that could delay the release of unofficial results.

“People are upset that we’re not going to know the results, potentially not going to know the results on election night. That may apply to other states,” Miller said “I’d hate to see Iowa to fall into that category of delaying the actual unofficial results on election night.”

All election results are unofficial until the canvass of votes.

Get ready to be patient on Election Night

Election experts are encouraging voters to be patient on election night, noting that the term is increasingly outdated, as more Americans move to mail-in ballots, which take more time to process, and can in some states legally still be accepted and counted after Election Day has come and gone (so long as they’re mailed by certain deadlines).

Kristi Everett, Elections Deputy at the Pottawattamie County Auditor’s Office, is among those hoping that voters adjust their expectations heading into November.

“My county is used to us being done by 9 p.m. and we get the results out right away,” Everett said.

She can already hear the questions now, if they can’t keep up that pace this year: “Why are we not done?”

“It’s just like, we’re doing what we can with what we have during this pandemic that we’re in right now,” she said. “I’m only human, and we’re just doing what we can. Hopefully people will give us grace.”

Already, Iowa has seen a dramatic increase in absentee ballot requests compared to four years ago.

As of Friday, some 583,000 Iowans had requested a mail-in ballot, compared to some 302,000 on October 13, 2016, according to state records.

Absentee ballots will start being mailed out to voters on October 5. Iowans have until October 24 to request one.

In order to be counted, an absentee ballot must get to the auditor’s office by the time polls close on Election Day, or be postmarked by the day before the election, and arrive in the auditor’s office by noon on the Monday after the election.

Editor's note: This story was corrected Sep. 28 at noon to fully reflect Auditor Joel Miller's position that county election officials need additional days to count absentee ballots.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter