Iowa House approves new restrictions on counting absentee ballots

Seeking to address a problem that has grown along with absentee voting, Iowa House Republicans approved a bill yesterday to set new restrictions on which mailed ballots may be counted. Backers said the change would provide more consistency to the system. But the change may not reduce the number of ballots tossed out every election year.

Under current law, ballots postmarked no later than the day before the election can be counted if they arrive at the county auditor’s office within a few days after the election. House File 506 changes the rules so that only ballots “received in the [county elections] commissioner’s office before the polls close on election day” could be counted, except for military absentee ballots. Those would still count as long as they were received “by noon on the day before the supervisors canvass the votes.”

For years, some county officials and elected officials have expressed concerns over the number of absentee ballots that arrive with no postmark. Before election day, the lack of postmark is not an issue, but late-arriving absentee ballots with no postmark are tossed out. County auditors and even U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin have urged post offices to postmark all absentee ballot envelopes, but research indicates the percentage of ballots that are postmarked varies widely by county.

Last year, a group of county auditors and state legislators met several times to discuss the problem. They could not reach any consensus on a solution. House File 506 resembles the approach favored by county auditors because it would give them a “sure-count deadline.”

I prefer in-person early voting now, but I voted by mail in several Iowa elections during the years I lived overseas. Postal delivery times can be unpredictable. Why should a citizen who mailed a ballot well before election day (as demonstrated by a postmark) be disenfranchised just because the ballot wasn’t delivered to the county auditor on time? If some military ballots that arrive after election day can still be counted, why should other Iowans be forced to play a guessing game on how early they need to put the ballot in the mail in order to ensure its arrival before election day?

O.Kay Henderson described yesterday’s floor debate over House File 506 as “emotional.” The House Journal for March 11 alludes to several representatives calling points of order on “decorum of debate.” According to Henderson’s story for Radio Iowa, GOP State Representative Quentin Stanerson argued that the bill would “make the acceptance of absentee ballots consistent and reliable.” Democrats including State Representative Deborah Berry warned that more Iowans would have the chance of a mailed ballot not being counted. Republican Chris Hagenow countered that “a consistent set of rules that applies to everyone in every situation” would produce “a system where everyone’s vote counts equally.” Not really. Just as happens now, some Iowans who drop their ballots in the mail a day or two before the election will have their votes counted, while others won’t. Under the status quo, the inconsistency comes from post offices that don’t always apply a postmark. Under House File 506, the inconsistency would come from mail delivery times.

The concept behind House File 506 is that Iowans will mail ballots sooner if they know votes must arrive before election day to be counted. Whether that will result in fewer ballots arriving a day or two late (with or without a postmark) is anyone’s guess.

Before the vote on final passage, representatives rejected on a party-line vote a Democratic amendment that would have allowed absentee ballots with a valid postmark “not later than the day before the election” to be counted if they were received by the county auditor’s office by noon on the Monday following the election. That amendment would also have called for a report from each county on how many ballots were deemed not eligible to be counted because they were received in an envelope lacking a postmark.

In the final vote on the bill, House File 506 passed by 56 votes to 41 (click here to view the roll call). State Representative Larry Sheets was the only Republican to vote against the bill, joining all 40 Democrats present.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Pat Rynard made an important point at the Iowa Starting Line:

Republicans said their goal was creating an uniform method of counting votes since many post offices don’t postmark their mail.

But who would likely be most negatively affected by late-arriving absentees getting tossed? Rural voters, whose votes skew Republican. If you put a ballot in the mail anywhere in Des Moines, it’s almost certainly to the County Auditor’s office the next day. That’s not always the case in many smaller, rural communities with infrequent postal service. Many of those same rural voters live in precincts where they may live ten to twenty miles away from their polling place, making voting by mail a smart option. Why do House Republicans want to punish them for their preferred method of voting?

It seems like a counterproductive measure born out of a years-long effort by Iowa Republicans to find ways to make voting less convenient, in an all-too-obvious attempt to depress turnout for Democrats. Yet this maneuver could hurt Republican-leaning voters more. The postmark issue is a problem, but there’s ways to address it without potentially throwing out more votes in each election.

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  • Mail

    Snail mail is much, much more important in election law and administration than most lay people know. Comes as a shock to a lot of our rookie voters. I wonder how many mid-90s babies have ever bought a postage stamp.

    I always always ALWAYS recommend in person early voting, both to voters and field staffers. But the marching orders vary by cycle, so in 2016 the Dems will do whatever Chappaqua decides. In 2004 and 2014 the Dems pushed people to vote by mail. They lost. In 2008 and 2012 they pushed in person early voting. They won. Not that it was the only factor, just sayin’.

    If this legislation is going to pass in some form, adding the words “and overseas” after “military” would help. Not always clear which overseas voters are or are not actually in the service. Interestingly, the overseas ballots seem to be the MOST likely to be counted at end game. It’s the ones from the other side of town that get messed up.

    • In person early voting

      only works for those who can make it to the court house or a satellite  voting location. A significant number of people need to vote by mail. As a GOTV volunteer, I collected absentee ballots and delivered them to the county auditor. That avoided the post mark problem.

      My preference would be to do all voting by mail. It works in Oregon. The people there like it, and it saves the state money.

      • True Enough But

        in my experience (which is a lot) a very small percentage of mail voters are truly UNABLE to get to polls, early or otherwise. Which doesn’t matter; no one needs a reason. And not very many are self-initiated. The overwhelming majority are generated by campaigns.

        Here’s advice I always give campaign staffers:

        If you get ten people to vote early in person, that’s 10 votes. (Probably more like 9.95. Mistakes happen but they’re less common when someone from the office is there to help and double check. “Oops, you forgot to seal the envelope.”)

        But if you get ten vote by mail requests, that’s only NINE votes. Mail gets messed up, people do the paperwork wrong, or move after they make the request, and yes, some people fill out the form just to make the canvasser go away.

        Whether or not they LISTEN to my advice depends on what the marching orders from Des Moines or Boston or Chicago or Chappaqua are that year.

  • The Senate should kill this bill

    It makes vote by mail worse rather than better.  

    • I think that will happen

      when they discussed the problem last year, State Senator Jeff Danielson didn’t embrace this approach.

  • Never an end

    There is no end to the special considerations given to members or past members of the US military.  It is certainly not justified here.

    • Feds

      Many of the special privileges to military – and overseas civilians – are governed by the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, known in ElectionSpeak as UOCAVA.…

      So that would prohibit a state from having a stricter standard for those voters. It would not, however, prohibit a state from extending those same rights to domestic civilian voters.