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County Auditors Retool Operations To Handle A Surge In Absentee Voting

A Clark County election worker scans mail ballots following Nevada's June election.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Iowa's county auditors are retooling their operations to handle an expected surge in absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa’s county auditors are knee-deep in an election like no other. They’re bracing for record voter turnout and a surge in absentee ballots, all in the middle of a global pandemic. Some local election officials are retooling their operations in order to count all those votes.

This election is already breaking records, and Iowans still have two and a half more weeks to vote.

As of Wednesday, more than 740,000 votershad requested absentee ballots. That’s more than all the absentee ballots cast during the entire 2016 election.

An election like no other

Processing all those votes in a timely fashion is complicated, when county auditors are already struggling with staffing due to the pandemic. And it’s making some nervous.

“We’re putting more ballots through the machines, than has ever happened in any election in Iowa ever,” said Joel Miller, the auditor for Linn County, the state’s second largest.

He saw a surge during the primary too, but was able to count some 34,000 absentee ballots with a few hours to spare.

“We finished about five hours ahead of the primary,” Miller said. “And that’s with half the ballots we’re expecting this time.”

This time, he says it may be a closer call. Miller, like many auditors, relies on machines called high speed scanners to count absentee ballots.

Miller currently has two of the machines. In advance of the expected surge in mail-in voting this year, he tried to acquire another but says he couldn’t because they were in such high demand.

“They’re not available,” Miller said. “They’re not available at any price.”

"Murphy’s Law is alive and well and will probably occur in some county, or multiple counties, on election night in Iowa."
-Joel Miller, Linn County Auditor

Kristi Everett, the elections deputy for Pottawattamie County, said she tried to rent another high speed scanner back in March but couldn’t get one either. So she’s been taking extra care to test and service the one she has.

“She’s done good with me so far. I call it a she, right?” Everett said with a laugh. “Yeah, she’s done good with me so far. So if I treat her nice, hopefully she’ll hang with me!”

On a more serious note, Everett said she has every confidence in her county’s election infrastructure, but said that the scale of mail-in voting is more than she’s ever seen.

Other auditors in smaller counties told IPR they were able to get a high speed scanner specifically for this election, with the help of COVID-19 stimulus funding through the federal CARES Act.

This will be the first election that Montgomery County Auditor Stephanie Burke will be able to roll out her new high speed scanner.

“We’re excited about that,” Burke said. “We foresee that there shouldn’t be any issues.”

But Scott County Auditor Roxanna Mortiz, who’s also president of the Iowa auditor’s association, says the surge in absentee ballots could still slow down the counting.

“Knowing that some of our larger counties have a lot of absentees that are gonna have be counted, it might not be as timely as people are used to, possibly,” Mortiz said. “We could have equipment failures.”

For her own operations, Moritz says she typically only needs one high speed scanner, and has a second available as a backup. But this year, she’ll have to use both.

“We don’t have a backup. So if something happens to one or the other, it could slow our process down,” she said.

Iowa's timeline for processing ballots

Part of this time crunch is due to state law. In Iowa, auditors can begin counting absentee ballots the day before Election Day.

This year, lawmakers gave them an extra day to do the time-consuming work of prepping the ballots for counting, checking for the voter’s signature and opening the outer envelopes.

Under an emergency request from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, auditors can begin that work on Saturday Oct. 31.

Other states allow election officials to begin pre-processing ballots more than a month before Election Day.

Still, some auditors, especially from the state’s smaller counties, told IPR that extra day should be enough time, or that they may not need it at all.

But Miller is worried that if something unforeseen happens there may not be enough time to safely, securely, and accurately process the ballots in time to report unofficial results on election night.

There’s always some risk of a mechanical issue or power outage, he reasons.

“I’m not trying to cry wolf,” Miller said. “I just know from personal experiences that Murphy’s Law is alive and well and will probably occur in some county, or multiple counties, on election night in Iowa.”

'Better to be accurate than fast'

Auditors are under intense pressure from voters, candidates and reporters to get the numbers out on election night.

But researchers are urging the public to adjust those expectations.

“Look, it’s better for us to be accurate than be fast and inaccurate,” Miller said. “That’s what everyone needs to remember.”

Across the country, states have dramatically increased absentee voting due to the pandemic and the processing of those mail-in ballots often just takes longer.

Besides, elections have never been officially over on election night, points out Douglas Jones, a voting expert at the University of Iowa.

"It is the certified result from the county board of elections that really determines the outcome of the election. None of the election night newscasting means a thing, legally."
-Douglas Jones, University of Iowa election expert

“It is the certified result from the county board of elections that really determines the outcome of the election,” Jones said. “None of the election night newscasting means a thing, legally.”

Iowa is one of a number of states to keep counting mail-in votes after Election Day. Under state law, absentee ballots can keep being tallied until November 9, as long as they’re postmarked by November 2.

And all results are unofficial until the canvass of votes.

But tensions are especially high this year because President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to accepting the outcome, and has made baseless claims about widespread voter fraud.

Jones says this kind of misinformation is dangerous. But he’s confident in election officials.

“They’re extraordinarily committed to the process. And they are extraordinarily careful, to the extent that things are within their control,” Jones said.

When issues have come up in the past, Jones says Iowa officials have handled them gracefully. He hopes that continues this year.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter