© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
IPR News

Voters Show Up At The Polls For Two Iowa Special Elections Forgetting They Already Voted

IPR File
More than 300 voters in Cedar Falls and Woodbury County showed up to vote in rescheduled special elections on Tuesday, forgetting they had already voted.

A couple hundred voters showed up at the polls for two special elections in Iowa Tuesday, only to be told they had already cast their ballots.
Thousands voted absentee in the months ahead of the elections, but on Tuesday, more than 300 voters who came to the polls in Woodbury County were told they had already participated. This also happened to 64 voters in Cedar Falls.

Black Hawk County Elections Manager Karen Showalter said she expected some voters would be confused because the election got pushed back more than three months.

“We set up another table at the polling location just for these voters so that it didn’t hold up the line for our regular voters,” Showalter said. “So because we were prepared for it, it wasn’t frustrating at all.”

Showalter said nobody was upset, but a couple people were "adamant that they didn't vote." Her office had them cast provisional ballots. This type of ballot is placed in an envelope and given to an absentee board to determine if it can be counted.

After Rob Green won the Cedar Falls mayoral election in November and vacated his city council seat, a special election to fill that seat was scheduled for March 24. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate granted Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder’s request to postpone the election by one week to give voters more time to request and return absentee ballots during the pandemic. In Woodbury County, a special election was scheduled for April 14 to fill the board of supervisors seat vacated by Jeremy Taylor, who resigned over a residency issue. Secretary Pate moved the two special elections as well as one in the city of Craig in northwest Iowa's Plymouth County to July 7 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, under Iowa law, these elections can't be held on the day of or within four weeks of a primary. The first available date after the June 2 primary was July 7.

Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill said his office received more than 400 calls from precinct election officials during the July 7 special election, and the bulk of them were regarding 300 people who had previously voted absentee, then went to the polls to try to vote in person.

“The ones that had already participated didn’t have a ballot to surrender, so the precinct election official calls our office and we verify that [we've] already received a ballot,” said Gill, adding that people were offered a chance to cast a provisional ballot. “A lot of people were concerned that they just didn’t remember voting in this election, so we offered them an unprecedented level [of flexibility] to let them come in and actually view their affidavit envelope that has their signature on it when they mailed that ballot back.”

Gill said some people took his office up on that offer, and were appeased once they came in to check. He added this kind of confusion occasionally happens, especially with elderly folks voting in an election, but nothing to this level.

“We might have one or two for an election that do that,” Gill said. “They just forget. But this one was, there was a lot of stuff going on.”

Gill, in an email to media on Tuesday, said he had asked Pate not to postpone the special election because he felt it would cause “massive voter confusion” with the postponement and the fact that the June primary was weeks before.

“Today, Mr. Gill’s fears have been realized,” Gill said in the statement, adding that “the phones have been ringing off the hook.”

In a statement, Secretary Pate said he postponed the elections “to ensure every eligible voter had the opportunity to cast a ballot in these special elections.”

“As the pandemic was hitting Iowa in mid-March, we needed to make decisions to protect voters and poll workers, so three special elections needed to be rescheduled,” Pate said. “I stand by my decisions and always encourage county auditors to educate voters about upcoming elections, especially ones with unique circumstances like these.”

Both special elections saw large turnouts. More than 9,000 people participated in the Woodbury County election, which is 15 percent of the county’s registered voters. Gill said he would normally expect about a 10 percent turnout for this type of election. In Cedar Falls, more than 6,500 voters participated of the nearly 29,800 registered voters in the city, a nearly 22 percent turnout.

The city of Craig in Plymouth County also had a special election that was moved to July 7. County Auditor Stacey Feldman said her office did not receive any calls about confused voters. Thirty-five people in the small city of 53 participated in the election and 12 of those voters came to the polls on Tuesday.