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Iowa Secretary Of State Says County Auditors Can't Use Some Ballot Drop Boxes

Organizers erected signs to draw attention to a one-day voting station at a Latino grocery in Des Moines, Iowa. Satellite voting locations are designed to make early voting more convenient.
Sandhya Dirks
IPR File
Organizers erected signs to draw attention to a one-day voting station at a Latino grocery in Des Moines. Satellite voting locations are designed to make early voting more convenient.

This story was updated Friday, August 28, 2020 at 4:47 p.m.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said Friday that county auditors are allowed to have absentee ballot drop boxes inside or directly outside of their office buildings.

Pate’s comments during a taping of Iowa Press on Iowa PBS came more than a week after his office told county election officials they can’t use a ballot drop box system. Some counties have been using them for years.

“This was a good example of terrible line of communication,” Pate said. “And my office will take some of that on our shoulders. We are not telling people they can’t have the drop box at the auditor’s office, outside. The confusion was when you start putting them around the community.”

Pate said his office interprets state law as not allowing ballot drop boxes in other locations. He said his office will provide more information to county auditors about keeping their drop boxes secure.

Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald was asked how county auditors feel about the confusion caused by the secretary of state’s office.

“It’s been a great source of consternation for a lot of them,” Fitzgerald said.

The story below was originally published Wednesday, August 26, 2020:

The Iowa secretary of state’s office recently told local election officials they can’t use absentee ballot drop boxes, and then said Wednesday that drop boxes must be secured to the county auditor’s office building. But several counties have already used ballot drop boxes in past elections, and one county board voted Wednesday to approve additional drop boxes in other locations.

“The secretary of state’s legal counsel informed county auditors that the Iowa Attorney General’s Office clarified that they can set up a no-contact delivery system for voters in their office to use during regular business hours,” Kevin Hall, spokesman for Secretary of State Paul Pate, said in an email Friday.

On Wednesday, Hall said, “Auditors can provide a secure, no-contact ballot delivery system at their office building.”

He then said that drop boxes “must be secured to the building where the county auditor’s office is located,” and said the secretary of state’s office will provide more information to local election officials in the next few days.

It’s not clear how this will affect existing ballot drop boxes in Iowa.

At least three dozen counties already have a drop box as an option for voters to return completed absentee ballots and ballot request forms. Many of them are located inside or directly outside the building that houses the county auditor’s office, according to emails shared by the president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors.

Some county auditors said they set up drop boxes because of the coronavirus pandemic, while others said they have been using them for years.

In the June primary election, Iowans broke a voter turnout record with nearly 80 percent voting an absentee ballot as voting from home has been encouraged to avoid spreading COVID-19. Some voters prefer to use ballot drop boxes instead of putting their ballot in the mail or going into an auditor’s office during a pandemic. And election officials expect the 2020 general election to yield a record number of absentee ballots in Iowa.

Some local officials said they were surprised that the secretary of state took aim at drop boxes.

Hall said Iowa law has not changed recently on this topic.

“The issue arose because there were complaints about one county auditor placing unsecured and unsupervised ballot drop boxes next to trash cans at a grocery store, so we asked for the attorney general’s legal guidance,” Hall said Wednesday. “These are in clear violation of Iowa Code.”

Hall’s description appears to reference actions taken by Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. He placed ballot drop boxes in front of three grocery stores in Linn County.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to allow the use of those drop boxes.

“It’s questionable whether or not [the state’s] interpretation of the law is accurate,” Miller said. “But in any case, I don’t want to take any chances on it. So the board of supervisors via their powers of home rule, and because there are no laws preempting this action, said that we are declaring that those drop boxes are part and parcel of the Linn County Auditor’s office.”

Miller said banning drop boxes could make it harder for some Iowans to vote absentee, especially when it gets closer to the deadline for returning a completed ballot.

And he said the ballot drop boxes are placed under active video cameras.

“They are near the entrance. There are lots of people around at all hours of the day and night,” Miller said. “They are bolted into the concrete. They are double locked. They have a small opening that only letter-sized envelopes can go in.”

Miller also said that a team of two people, one Republican and one Democrat, empty the ballot drop boxes five days a week.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter