Political expert: Absentee ballot request form access could make a difference in close November races

Published: Jul. 8, 2020 at 11:54 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - After record turnout in last month’s primary, the state legislature changed the law that allowed the Secretary of State to take the steps that helped those records to be broken.

Before the primary, Sec. Paul Pate sent an absentee ballot request form to every active registered voter in Iowa. Now under the new law, Pate will have to get lawmakers’ approval to do that.

A group of a dozen counties in eastern Iowa — Benton, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Cedar, Delaware, Dubuque, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Tama, and Washington — are split between the counties whose auditors’ offices can afford to automatically send absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter and are choosing to do so, and the counties in which auditors are opting out of this service because they can’t afford it.

But there’s another trend among these counties based on the profiles of their active registered voters, and it could have political implications in November.

The four counties electing to automatically send the forms — Black Hawk, Dubuque, Johnson, and Linn — all have strong Democratic majorities among their active registered voters. Meanwhile, most of the counties in that group that won’t be sending forms automatically — Benton, Cedar, Delaware, Iowa, Jones, and Tama — have more registered Republicans than Democrats. The only exception is Buchanan County, which is not sending the forms and has slightly more Democrats registered.

In Washington County, where Republicans make up the majority of registered voters, the county auditor is still deciding whether to send the forms, saying the total cost may hold him back.

Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said those discrepancies could make a difference in the November general election.

“There is that possibility, because if it’s a really, really close race, even a couple hundred, let alone a couple thousand votes, might make a difference,” he said.

The Cook Political Report considers races in Iowa’s 1st congressional district, between Democratic incumbent Abby Finkenauer and Republican Ashley Hinson, 2nd congressional district, between Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Democrat Rita Hart, and 3rd congressional district, between Democratic incumbent Cindy Axne and Republican David Young, along with its Senate race, in which Democrat Theresa Greenfield is challenging Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, to all be competitive at this point.

Hagle said voters who don’t belong to a party will most likely decide who wins these races. But, he said it’s hard to predict how access to ballots in each county will play into that.

“The short answer is that there’s a lot of factors going on here, in terms of what the races are like, whether people are actually going to turn out anyway, what the opportunities are in terms of in-person voting,” Hagle said.

Iowa Democrats claim they have an advantage in these races when voting is more accessible. As in years past, the Iowa Democratic Party will send absentee ballot request forms to some voters ahead of November.

“We will have a process where we figure out the people that we send absentee ballots to, and we’ll be making those decisions here fairly quickly,” Mark Smith, the IDP chairperson, said. “But the intent, again, is to make sure that people have the right to vote and do it in the easiest way possible.”

The Republican Party of Iowa plans to send request forms too.

In a statement to KCRG-TV9, Chairperson Jeff Kaufmann said, “Our outreach to Iowa voters will continue to be as robust as ever. Between the campaigns, both political parties, and other groups, millions will be spent to make sure Iowans receive absentee ballot request forms. Just like in every previous election, this will be a widespread effort, reaching voters in every corner of the state.”

Hagle said it is possible that voters’ experience with mail-in ballots for the June primary might encourage them to do the same in November, especially if the pandemic affects in-person voting opportunities again.

“Now whether that affects Democrats more than Republicans — well, to some extent, that’s what we have to wait and see,” Hagle said. “Like I said, traditionally, Democrats have taken a little bit more advantage of either absentee ballots by the mail-in type or some type of early voting than Republicans have, but Republicans have been trying to close the gap.”

Hagle said he also expects the political parties sending out their request forms will at least partially make up for those discrepancies in which county auditors are sending them too.

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