|Roughly a third of Iowans voted early in the last two general elections. Absentee ballots accounted for 545,739 of the 1,528,715 Iowa votes in the 2008 presidential election (pdf) and 360,467 of the 1,125,386 Iowa votes in the 2010 general election (pdf). Roughly 50 percent more Iowans voted early in 2010 than in either of the two previous two midterm elections.
The Iowa Democratic Party outperformed the Republican Party of Iowa on early voting in 2008 by a substantial margin. Democrats cast 250,104 of the absentee ballots in Iowa that year, while 156,986 registered Republicans and 138,328 no-party voters cast early ballots.
The Iowa GOP stepped up its game two years ago, however. 136,243 Republicans voted early, nearly as many as as the 155,421 Democrats who exercised that option and almost double the 68,499 independents who voted absentee. U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and GOP gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad encouraged early voting through their own campaigns' mass mailings, in addition to the state party's efforts.
With neither Grassley nor Branstad on the ballot this year and the Iowa GOP's fundraising down sharply since Matt Strawn resigned as party chairman in February, Republicans are unlikely to send out as much direct mail pushing early voting as they did in 2010. On the other hand, many GOP candidates have been encouraging supporters to fill out absentee ballot request forms this summer.
Iowa Democrats know that early voting saved a number of state House and Senate incumbents in 2008 and 2010. Banking votes early reduces the chance that bad weather or an unexpected illness will prevent a reliable voter from getting to the polls on November 6. Every absentee ballot returned represents one fewer voter who needs to be called or door-knocked on election day. If you have a landline and hate political phone calls, be aware that you are likely to be bothered less often once your county auditor has received and processed your absentee ballot.
Iowans must be registered to vote in order request an absentee ballot. Registered voters then have three options for early voting.
1. Vote by mail.
Voters can download an absentee ballot request here (pdf) if they don't receive one directly from a candidate or political party. Any registered voter who will be 18 years old by November 6, 2012 can request an absentee ballot. County auditors will process all absentee ballot requests received by 5 pm on Friday, November 2.
County auditors will begin mailing absentee ballots to voters 40 days before the election (September 27, 2012). After that, auditors will mail out the ballots immediately after processing the requests. The ballots contain instructions for completing them.
To be counted, absentee ballots for this year's general election must be postmarked by Monday, November 5 and must arrive at the county auditor's office by Monday, November 12. The Secretary of State's website notes,
Voted absentee ballots cannot be delivered to the polling place on election day. If you have not returned your absentee ballot on election day, you have the following options:
1. Deliver your voted absentee ballot to the county auditor's office before the polls close on election day
2. Surrender your voted absentee ballot at the polls and vote a regular ballot
3. Vote a provisional ballot at the polls if you cannot surrender your voted absentee ballot
Those who drop their completed ballots in the mail can use this page at the Secretary of State's website to track their ballot. I recommend doing so to confirm that your ballot made it to the county auditor's office.
2. Vote at a county auditor's office.
In my opinion, voting early in person is less hassle. You can do this during normal business hours at any of Iowa's 99 county auditor's offices, beginning 40 days before the general election (in this case September 27). I find it convenient to swing by the auditor's office when other errands bring me to downtown Des Moines. At the office, you fill out a request form and receive a ballot immediately. You can fill it out in an area shielded from other people's view and hand it straight back to an employee in the auditor's office.
The last day for voting in person at a county auditor's office will be Monday, November 5.
3. Vote at a satellite station.
In larger counties, Iowans can also vote at satellite voting stations. The procedure is the same as for voting in person at the county auditor's office, but the satellite station may be at a grocery store, shopping mall, or even a church in some cases. Later this fall, county auditors will announce the locations and operating hours of these satellite stations. Some of the satellite stations will be open on weekends, when the county auditor's offices are closed.
The Iowa Secretary of State's office answers more frequently asked questions about absentee voting here. I learned something new on that page: if a person casts an absentee ballot but dies before Election Day, "Iowa law prohibits these ballots from being counted if the county auditor is notified of the death before absentee ballots are considered." That's not true in every state. Hawaii counted the ballot cast by Barack Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, even though she died shortly before the 2008 presidential election.
The Iowa Democratic Party appears to have mailed absentee ballot request forms to all reliable voters who are registered Democrats. The direct-mail pieces addressed to me and to Mr. desmoinesdem urge, "As someone who voted early by mail in 2010, we hope you'll do so again in 2012!" (Someone get Iowa Democrats a copy editor who can fix dangling modifiers!) Thing is, no one in this household voted early by mail in 2010. I voted at the auditor's office, and my husband voted the old-fashioned way, at the polls on election day.
I was impressed by the user-friendly features of this mass mailing, though. My name, address and phone number are already printed on the request form, and the correct box is checked for the 2012 general election. All I need to do is add my date of birth, sign and date the form, put on a stamp, and drop it in the mail.
Later this fall, Bleeding Heartland will periodically post updates on the number of absentee ballots requested and returned by Iowa Democrats, Republicans, and no-party voters. So far, I only have numbers for Linn County. The auditor's office announced yesterday that of the 5357 absentee requests entered, 3963 (74 percent) came from registered Democrats, 1106 (21 percent) came from no-party voters, and just 285 (5 percent) came from Republicans. Those numbers indicate a solid head start for Democrats in the Cedar Rapids metro area. Linn County has more registered voters than any Iowa county except for Polk. I'll bet that most of the no-party voters who have submitted absentee ballot request forms so far were identified as supporters of President Obama or one of the local Democratic candidates for Iowa House or Senate.
Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.
UPDATE: John Deeth notes in the comments that as of August 17, 1849 registered Democrats, 463 no-party voters, 112 Republicans, two Greens, and one Libertarian had submitted absentee ballots in Johnson County (containing the Iowa City area).