Conflict resolved over Iowa absentee ballot drop boxes

The Iowa Secretary of State's office has confirmed in writing what Secretary of State Paul Pate said last week: county auditors may place secure drop boxes outside government buildings, to make it easier for voters to hand-deliver absentee ballots.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller has opted not to fight the state's interpretation and will remove three boxes his office had set up near grocery stores in the Cedar Rapids area.

Pate's legal counsel told county elections officials last month that drop boxes were "not permitted" and that any no-contact hand-delivery system for absentee ballots could be used only in the office during opening hours. He refused to release advice from the Iowa Attorney General's office that his staff claimed to support the position.

Pate walked back that interpretation last weekend after an outcry. Dozens of county auditors had used drop boxes before the 2020 primary with no issues, and many voters are anxious to hand-deliver their ballots to avoid postal delivery delays.

The Des Moines Register's Stephen Gruber-Miller was first to report on the guidance, emailed to county auditors on September 2.

It confirms that "A county auditor may develop a no-contact ballot delivery system option located at their office [...] or on county owned and maintained property directly surrounding the building where their office is located." Auditors are instructed to "take all steps necessary to ensure that the system is always secure and monitored," if the drop box is available to voters outside regular business hours.

Only county auditors and their employees may have access to the keys or combinations used to open the lock, and every time someone retrieves ballots from the box, that action must be logged.

Ballots may be hand-delivered to the drop boxes up to 9:00 pm on Tuesday, November 3, the same time polls close in Iowa for in-person voting and the deadline for delivering an absentee ballot to a county elections office.

The guidance would not allow Linn County to maintain three drop boxes Auditor Joel Miller set up near Hy-Vee stores in Cedar Rapids and Marion. Miller said in a statement emailed to Bleeding Heartland on September 3 that he had installed those after the successful use of a drop box outside Linn County's Public Service Center before the June 2020 primary.

In addition, Miller said, he was reacting to "the disturbing news that the USPS [U.S. Postal Service] was being degraded in anticipation of a higher volume of elections mail AND because my constituents wanted a way to bypass the USPS due to trust issues with it."

Miller characterized the secretary of state's guidance on drop boxes as "hogwash" but has directed staff to remove the boxes at the grocery stores on or before October 4. Signs will be posted in those locations directing voters to the nearest post office or to the county government office building where a drop box will be maintained. He added,

The legality of drop boxes for absentee ballots was not in contention a few weeks ago. It seems that anything I do to convenience voters, which might lead to a higher voter turnout, is coming into question.

Barring a court order, the HyVee drop boxes will be removed before any absentee ballots are dropped into them; therefore, this issue is moot.

Miller hopes to see 80 percent voter turnout in Linn County for the general election. To meet that goal, his priorities are to ensure that every voter who has requested an absentee ballot will receive one. He is continuing his legal fight to be able to issue ballots to voters who returned Linn County's pre-filled absentee ballot request forms. At the same time, he plans to mail blank replacement absentee ballot request forms to those voters this month, as a Linn County District Court judge ordered last week. Donald Trump's campaign and several Republican entities had sued to invalidate those request forms.

Marc Elias, a Democratic attorney who is involved in multiple lawsuits battling voter suppression efforts, was critical of Pate's guidance on drop boxes. Gruber-Miller reported that an August 31 news conference, Elias said it's "an anti-drop box position" to restrict drop boxes for absentee ballots to government property.

"There is no reason, there is no study, there is no expert, there is no academic, there is no anything that supports the position that is being taken right now to limit accessibility to returning ballots via drop box. It is simply trying to make returning ballots harder so that fewer ballots count."

"Will there be future legal action? I would stay tuned," he said.

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