Three ways to vote early in Iowa (2016 edition)

Early voting begins in Iowa tomorrow, 40 days before November 8. Hillary Clinton is coming to downtown Des Moines for a rally less than a mile from the elections office in Polk County, home to about one in seven registered Iowa voters. Donald Trump will rally supporters today in Council Bluffs, Iowa's seventh-largest city.

More than 43 percent of Iowans who cast ballots in the last presidential election voted before election day. President Barack Obama built up a lead of 137,355 among early Iowa voters, which more than compensated for Mitt Romney's advantage of 45,428 among those who voted on November 6, 2012.

Strong early GOTV will be important for Clinton and other Democrats for another reason too: Iowa women are more likely than men to vote before election day. Clinton needs high turnout from women to offset Trump's advantage among men.

Click here for tables showing the latest early vote numbers and here for the same data from 2012. So far, registered Iowa Democrats have requested more than twice as many absentee ballots as have Republicans. However, Democrats are behind their early vote numbers from the last presidential campaign, while the GOP is ahead of its 2012 pace.

Although many people enjoy the experience of going to their local polling place on election day, I encourage all my friends to vote early. Ballots cast in September and October allow campaigns to focus their final GOTV efforts on those who may need an extra push to participate. Voters benefit too, because they won't have to worry about bad weather, last-minute work obligations, or a family emergency stopping them from getting to the polls on November 8. They also will receive fewer unsolicited phone calls and knocks at the door once their county auditor has processed their ballot.

Iowans have three options for voting early.

Vote by mail.

Both political parties already have mailed absentee ballot request forms to most Iowans who voted early in the past. Any registered voter who will be 18 years old by November 8, 2016 can request an absentee ballot; forms are available on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website and on every county auditor's website. If you request a ballot now, you should receive it within a week of sending in the form.

Absentee ballots contain instructions for completing and returning them. If you vote by mail, make sure you follow those instructions, because ballots are not counted when voters don't seal the ballot inside the secrecy envelope, or fail to sign the affidavit envelope that holds the secrecy envelope. After mailing your absentee ballot, you can use this tracking feature to confirm it arrived at the county auditor's office.

Auditors will begin mailing absentee ballots to most voters this week. Those serving in the military or living overseas may already have received their ballots.

County auditors will process all absentee ballot requests received by 5 pm on Friday, November 4.

Mailed absentee ballots must be postmarked by Monday, November 7 and must arrive at the county auditor’s office by Monday, November 14. I encourage voters not to procrastinate, because post offices no longer routinely postmark all mail. If your ballot arrives at the county auditor's office after election day with no postmark proving you mailed it by November 7, your vote will not be counted. Hundreds of ballots have gone uncounted in past Iowa elections for that reason.

Some people request a ballot by mail and either forget to send it back or decide later they would prefer to vote on election day. 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, or
3. Vote a provisional ballot at the polls if you cannot surrender your voted absentee ballot.

Vote in person at the county auditor's office.

Starting on September 29 and running through November 7, all 99 county auditors' offices will allow early voting during regular business hours. I prefer this method and usually vote on the first day some other errand brings me to downtown Des Moines. Voting at the Polk County Elections Office (on Second Avenue just south of Court) has never taken me more than ten minutes.

At a county auditor's office, early voters sign a ballot request form, then receive a ballot immediately. You will not be allowed to take the ballot home to fill out later, so make sure to research any down-ballot candidates before going to vote. Sample ballots are available on county auditor websites, so voters can find out the options ahead of time.

County auditor's offices have accessible ballot marking devices for those who need help to fill out their ballots.

Voting early in person increases the chance your vote will count, because an elections official will confirm all envelopes have been properly sealed and signed as you hand your ballot over.

Voting early in person also helps the candidates you support, because it reduces the number of outstanding ballots volunteers need to "chase" shortly before election day. Contacting voters who have not returned their absentee ballots is labor-intensive, and many people are hard to reach by phone or at the door.

After I reported last week that Democratic absentee ballot numbers were down compared to 2012 and 2014, several sources indicated that Democrats deliberately started their early voting program a bit later this year, because of a poor return rate from ballots requested during the summer of 2014. According to other sources, the Democratic "coordinated campaign" will push for more in-person early voting, not just in Iowa but in other battleground states too. One active Des Moines volunteer confirmed that she will be giving rides to people who want to cast an early ballot at the county auditor's office.

Early vote numbers over the next few weeks will indicate whether my sources had accurate information or were just trying to spin me. I am updating these tables every weekday.

Incidentally, on those tables every ballot cast early in person counts as an absentee ballot requested by a voter and as an absentee ballot received by an auditor on the same day.

Vote in person at a satellite location.

This option is not available in every county, but many county auditors set up satellite locations for in-person early voting, especially in major metro areas. Common locations include public libraries, community centers, or churches. Such buildings "must be accessible to people with disabilities." The schedule will be available on the county auditor's website. I enclose below this year's list of satellite voting dates and locations in Polk County.

The process is the same as for early voting at a county auditor's office: you sign an absentee ballot request form, receive a ballot, and must fill it out and turn it in immediately. You can't take the ballot home, so research any down-ballot races ahead of time.

Any comments about the presidential election are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Some people hesitate to vote early because they've heard the false rumor that ballots won't be counted unless they could affect the election result. Under Iowa law, "Absentee ballots received by Election Day are counted on Election Day. Ballots received after Election Day but before the deadline are counted when the absentee and special voters' precinct board meets as long as they are postmarked the day before Election Day or earlier."

Unlike some states, Iowa does not allow counting of absentee ballots from voters who die before election day. County auditors will pull those ballots if notified of the voter's death in time.

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