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Smaller counties struggle to fund automatic absentee ballot request forms for voters

Published: Jul. 7, 2020 at 11:47 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Starting this week, Iowans can request a mail-in ballot for the November election.

County auditors are encouraging their voters to do this because of the pandemic, but one big hurdle is stopping many of those auditors themselves from automatically sending request forms to voters: money.

Hayley Rippel, the Benton County auditor, said she can’t afford to do a mass mailing for the nearly 17,000 voters her county.

“It would be almost $10,000 just to mail just one out to each active registered voter,” Rippel said. “My overall election budget for the general election is like $67,000. You know, not knowing how many precincts, how many poll workers, all the publication costs — there’s just so many factors.”

Cindy Gosse, the auditor in Buchanan County, said her office can’t afford a mass mailing either for its 13,000 active registered voters.

“The cost right now is what’s preventing me from doing it,” Gosse said, noting the total would be around $8,000.

Gosse and Rippel’s counterparts in Jones, Tama, and Iowa counties all said cost was a major factor in their decisions to not automatically send an absentee ballot request form to all their registered voters.

“We are a smaller, rural county, and funds are tight,” Laura Kopsa, Tama County auditor, said in an email.

Auditors in Cedar and Delaware counties say they’re opting out of a mass mailing too.

Washington County Auditor Dan Widmer is still making up his mind on whether to send the ballot request forms to his county’s 14,000-plus voters. But the same factor is stopping him as well.

“It would be roughly a $15,000 cost for us,” Widmer said. “So yes, that’s the big concern.”

As Widmer, Gosse, and Rippel all pointed out, the costs add up as auditors’ offices cover the price of materials along with the postage to send the thousands of absentee ballot request forms plus the return postage for voters to send their completed forms back to their auditor’s office. Another cost, of course, might be added later, for the price to send the actual ballot to voters who requested them.

But the total price tag isn’t as big a concern in four of eastern Iowa’s largest counties.

All registered voters in Black Hawk, Dubuque, Johnson, and Linn counties will automatically get a mail-in ballot request form for the November election. Auditors in those counties said they can afford it, even though their costs will be significantly higher than those for their less populated neighbors. For instance, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told KCRG-TV9 that it would cost up to $100,000 for his office to send request forms to all 90,000 active registered voters, but the costs are already covered in the county’s budget.

“Being a smaller county, our resources for even preparing them for mailing would take a lot too,” Gosse said.

The state legislature passed a law last month that restricts the Secretary of State’s power to send a mail-in ballot request form to every registered voter in Iowa.

While voters can still request that themselves, auditors said automatically getting the form makes voting so much more accessible.

“I can’t compare to Linn and Johnson County, but if the state’s going to pick that cost up and do it in all 99 counties, then yeah, why not? I mean, it’s benefitting all of us,” Rippel said.

Secretary Paul Pate’s action to do that across Iowa this year — before lawmakers approved the new restrictions — led to record participation in a primary.

According to Pate’s office, 531,131 Iowans voted in the June 2 primary, surpassing the previous turnout high by more than 81,000 votes. Among party lines, the secretary’s office reported 282,754 Democrats voted, 82.5% of them absentee, and 248,377 Republicans voted, 71.6% of them absentee.

In Buchanan County, Gosse said 24% of its votes were absentee, a jump from the primary average of 11%. She said her office issued 3,160 absentee ballots, of which 2,779 were returned, both of which were county records for a primary.

Benton County had 316 people vote absentee in the 2016 election, according to Rippel, while that number skyrocketed to 2,910 in 2020. She also said that helped the overall turnout increase from 14.9% of all registered voters in 2016 to more than 21% this year.

Washington County also saw huge gains in absentee voting from four years ago. Widmer said 2,647 absentee voters participated in this year’s primary, comprising 82% for the total votes cast, while in 2016, just 490 absentee ballots were requested, making up about 17% of that year’s total votes.

“Times are different now than they were 20, 30, 40, 60 years ago, whatever timeframe you want to use, and people are busy. They have things going on,” Widmer said of the rise in popularity he’s observed of mail-in votes, along with the pandemic this year.

Widmer and his counterparts are expecting a lot of voters to cast absentee ballots this November too, even if it might take more work in certain parts of the state to do so.

Rippel said she will be doing what she can — and what she can afford — to make that process easier.

“If a voter calls me or requests by email, we’re going to do our best to make sure they get that form, have it accessible on our website, social media. I will publish it in the newspaper so they can clip it out and use that,” Rippel said. “So I mean, I do feel like we do try to get the means out there in other ways.”

Another factor that a few auditors mentioned as to why they’re not sending these request forms to everyone: political parties, candidates, and other groups will usually send them out as well.

As a result, some auditors said there would be unnecessary overlap that could waste money they might be able to use elsewhere.

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