Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R - Cedar Rapids) and Polk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections Jamie Fitzgerald (D - Des Moines) discuss absentee voting, election integrity and important information Iowans need to know before voting begins.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Caroline Cummings, politics reporter for Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Yepsen:

As Iowans prepare to cast ballots in a high stakes election, there are questions about access, safety, security, and making sure votes count. We'll discuss voting issues on election preparations on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 28 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen:

We're just over two months away from the 2020 election. Campaigns and advocates are working hard to turn out voters, election officials are preparing to receive and count ballots, but postal service changes and an ongoing pandemic are creating challenges. To help us sort out what voters need to know we're joined by Polk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections Jamie Fitzgerald and Iowa's top elections official, Secretary of State Paul Pate. Gentlemen, thanks for being with us today. We know you're busy. And just so our viewers know we're taping this program with you on Friday morning.

Yepsen:

Journalists across the table are Caroline Cummings, Politics Reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson:

Mr. Pate, county auditors are not able to send out absentee ballots until October 5th. Right now there is an unresolved question in three counties, Linn County auditors, auditors in Linn County Woodbury County, and in Johnson County mailed out absentee ballot request forms that were filled out for the voter. That has been litigated by the Trump campaign and the Republican Party of Iowa and the National Republican Party. Why did you tell auditors that they had to send out blank forms?

Pate:

Well, that's because that's what the law states. The laws was clear in that. And also the Legislative Council met and unanimously voted along the same lines that they wanted those forms sent out, the information on those, particularly personal information that is confidential.

Henderson:

Mr. Fitzgerald, there's a pending case in this regard, in regards to these three counties. So we can't really discuss it. As David said, we're taping this on Friday morning. Some of these may be resolved by the end of the day. We don't know. But is there enough time for your colleagues in those three counties to make it clear to voters and resolve any issues about forms that are now invalidated?

Fitzgerald:

Well, if the court case decides a little differently than these auditors want, they're going to have no choice. They're going to have to find a way to contact these voters. The Secretary of State's mailer is coming out around Labor Day, so they could use that, but they also have to find a way, especially in Linn County, if things don't change they contact 50,000 voters during derecho, during a pandemic. So they're going to be up against the wall.

Henderson:

Why did you choose to send a blank form?

Fitzgerald:

We chose the blank form because we've had a lot of movement in our county, people moving from one apartment to another. So the blank form allowed us to put or current resident because there was no information on it other than a blank form. So we were allowed, it allowed a lot of our voters to fill out this blank form and change their address and get registered at the same time.

Henderson:

Mr. Pate, you live in Linn County. What's your advice to the 50,000 people that Mr. Fitzgerald referenced who may be in the dark or unsure about their absentee ballot request now?

Pate:

Well, we're going to work with the Linn County Auditor of course and making sure that all the voters have an opportunity to still vote absentee if they choose to. As Jamie mentioned, we're mailing out our forms statewide around Labor Day weekend. We will work with the auditor to make sure that it's being communicated to those folks who have already sent in their request on the wrong form based on what the courts are saying so they're successful in being able to vote.

Cummings:

Secretary Pate, Governor Kim Reynolds recently re-enfranchised tens of thousands of Iowans with felony convictions except there are some exceptions for certain crimes. How does this executive order mitigate or resolve some of those issues with the felon voting database? And how do you ensure that all of those Iowans who are newly allowed to vote, that they can actually do it?

Pate:

Well, we're working with the Department of Corrections and the courts to make sure those folks are successful again and being able to vote. We are reaching out to various groups as well. We just met with the NAACP last week. We are adjusting actually even the voter registration forms to be more in line with what we we're being asked to do. We're looking at about 35,000 names that the Department of Corrections will be providing us that we will be cross checking to make sure as best we can that they still live here, that they're still alive and that that they're going to be successful in that endeavor. We'll be giving the County Auditors before Election Day a current list in regards to that as well. And we'll work with the various outreach groups to make sure they have the tools to communicate to these felons that they do have the right to vote now.

Cummings:

You mentioned giving the County Auditors a list. But like I mentioned, that list was riddled with errors, which caused some people to not trust that list. So how do you ensure that that's resolved and that there is going to be no duplications people who are wrongly on that list to make sure that they are guaranteed the right to vote?

Pate:

Well, it's a little bit like apples and oranges here. We're talking about two different lists. The list that had the errors and the challenges we spent the last six to nine months roughly going through. That was 90,000 names that we spent an extensive amount of time personally going through each and every one of those. The list dealing with the governor's executive order is only about 35,000 names. And I don't want to get caught in the weeds here, but that's the crucial list. And the Department of Corrections are giving us that list and we're cross checking that against their social security numbers. We're not getting into addresses, that's a whole other game, but the auditors will definitely know that Joe Smith with a certain social security number has been cleared and should be able to vote.

Yepsen:

We're talking about election law, Mr. Pate, by definition we're in the weeds.

Pate:

It can get that way.

Henderson:

County auditors in at least 39 counties set out drop boxes to let voters in the June primary cast their ballots outside of office hours, or without actually walking in the office. Many offices were closed because of the pandemic. Mr. Pate, clear up the confusion now. What can auditors do with drop boxes for the November election?

Pate:

All the auditors should be able to have a drop mechanism there on their property for returning those ballots. That is my understanding, that's how we're interpreting it and we're advising the auditors. We're going to provide them with some guidelines on what that should look like to make sure that it can be as secure as possible. That will be allowed. The ones in question were the ones that were spread out throughout a community and parking lots at grocery stores, places like that. There is where the attorney general was involved and stating that those do not meet the present standards of the law.

Henderson:

So does that mean that you may allow a County Auditor to put a drop box outside a county building if it is county property?

Pate:

If it's at the auditor's office, Jamie's office isn't at the courthouse, but he would be able to put a drop box in front of his office building where he's located at so people can do that outside the building.

Henderson:

Mr. Fitzgerald, how big of an issue has this been, this confusion for auditors regarding these drop boxes?

Fitzgerald:

Well, it's been a great source of consternation from a lot them. My home county Webster originally, they've been doing it for 13 years. A lot of the times is where you put your property tax bill when you're right up against the deadline. So we've seen a lot of the smaller county auditors kind of rebel on this. It isn't going to be a big issue because we have, you know, the postal service being attacked. We've got a lot of background noise come out of Washington, D.C. about the safety of our voting. And then you have the drop box thing along with a couple of lawsuits. So people are becoming jittery about this and becoming nervous about their ballot counting.

Yepsen:

Mr. Pate, just quickly, what changed in the law? I don't recall any change in the law. Was it some interpretation change? Why make this change?

Pate:

Well, this was a good example of terrible line of communication. And my office will take some of that on our shoulders. We're not telling people they can't have the drop box again at the auditor's office outside. The confusion was when you start putting them throughout the community.

Yepsen:

Why is that a problem?

Pate:

That's the way that Iowa Code reads on elections. It does not give the auditors the authority to put these type of mechanisms around the county. If they want something like that, they need to go to the legislature and have them include that in the bill.

Cummings:

There's a new Iowa law barring county auditors from using a voter database to fix incomplete or incorrect information on absentee ballot request forms. Some auditors have told me that this will make their jobs more difficult and potentially add days to the process of getting an absentee ballot to a voter. Secretary of State, what is your response to those concerns about those delays and making it harder for county auditors to do their job?

Pate:

Well, I think I'm sensitive to the fact that they have a workload they need to meet. I'm not seeing those kinds of numbers from people in the primary. It was a good example that that was a challenge for them. The key thing here is we, people have to be clear, and this is what we're in legal in court over, you can't skirt the state law on voter ID by not requiring the voter to put in that ID information. In filling it in themselves as an auditor that takes and in my opinion does skirt the law and now the voter did not identify themselves, I am Paul Pate, here's my number. Putting in some of the other details is not perhaps as challenging maybe, but it's still, we want to be clear that we don't want you skirting the law on voter ID.

Cummings:

Auditor, what do you have to say about that law?

Fitzgerald:

Well to fraudulently try to request a ballot is election misconduct. That's a felony. So we don't see a lot of that, I mean, despite the noise we're hearing in DC. It is going to add time as we get farther into the process. Right now the people that are requesting ballots are people that are paying attention. You know, we've sent out our absentee ballot requests in Polk County. We have over 70,000 in our office right now that are completed. But each day that goes by there are a number that either don't put their birth date in, don't put their driver's license in. And so, as we get farther in the process these folks are going to be thinking they're getting a ballot and instead they're going to be getting a letter from our office saying, you didn't fill it out correctly. We don't have an email. We don't have a phone number for you. Please fill it out again.

Cummings:

Mr. Secretary, he hinted here about this notion of voter fraud coming from the White House and certainly Republicans in this state when they've passed this law and others have argued that these are efforts to curb voter fraud in Iowa. Is there widespread voter fraud in this state?

Pate:

You're looking at organized efforts. I'm not confident that that's happening in Iowa. I will tell you that that's our priority to make sure every vote is a legitimate vote. One vote being misrepresented is one too many. We have elections that are won and lost by less than 50 ballots. So we take it very seriously. And the transparency part of this election process is so important. It's no different than why would you lock the door on your house? You know, do you have a rash of burglaries in your neighborhood? I doubt it, but you do it because you're securing something that's valuable. That's what I look at voter ID as being a part of, it's protecting what you value.

Yepsen:

Mr. Fitzgerald, a lot of talk about delays in postal delivery. Now, are you seeing that here in Polk County? And more importantly, do you think this could slow down the counting of the vote?

Fitzgerald:

It's a great question, David, you know, it's one that remains to be seen. You've seen videos of them taking down orders in other states. We've talked to the Hawkeye Council here along with the postal union and they're very, very adamant that nothing's going to slow down here, that everything's going to be fine, but voters should make that decision. Once they decide who they're going to vote for, they should get it in earlier in the process as opposed to later. So don't wait until that Monday before to get the postmark on your ballot, but be cautious that once you've decided who you're voting for, you can't have that ballot back.

Yepsen:

Mr. Pate, what's your analysis of this around the state? Will slowdowns in the postal service, if they're real, will this affect people's ballots getting delivered on time? Will it affect the outcome of elections?

Pate:

I'm disappointed that this has come up, frankly, because we have not experienced that in Iowa. I'm very confident in the process. Just to put it in perspective for people, on a daily basis the United States Post Office processes over 400 million pieces of mail, 400 million a day. If every American voter chose to vote, you're looking at 300 million. Well, that's not on one day either. So it's not a huge impact. It's really talking to our voters about get your ballot in early. We also were the first state in the country to put IMB coding on our absentee ballot.

Yepsen:

What's that?

Pate:

It's a fancy term for imprinted on the envelope when we send it your ballot to you and you're filling it out. And what happens now is when it gets dropped into the postal system, wherever it gets dropped in, it's automatically noted that it's in there. So your vote is already secure. We don't have to worry about the old postmarks that used to be stamped on there. So if it's three days after the election and that ballot rolls into Jamie's office, if the IMB code says it was mailed on time your vote will get counted.

Henderson:

And that was a law that was passed in 2019 after a disputed election in a statehouse race up in the Decorah area. Jamie, we've been talking a lot about, you know, mail it as soon as you can. Let's just go through the dates here just to make it clear for people. October 5th is the first day you can send a ballot, right?

Fitzgerald:

Correct.

Henderson:

When can I first cast that ballot?

Fitzgerald:

Well, you can bring it back to our office. If you get anything October 5th, you can bring it back in. We'll have a contact free drop box in our lobby. That's also the first day to vote in person. So Iowa has got a great system where we allow you to vote from home where about 70% of the people did in the primary election. You can vote in our office, in person, it's still an absentee ballot, or you can go to the polling site on Election Day.

Henderson:

What about satellite voting locations, Mr. Pate? How do I find out if there's a satellite location that's closer to me if I don't live in the town where the county auditor's office is?

Pate:

Look at your county auditor's website. You can call them as well. Those are the best sources for that information.

Yepsen:

Some people don't have access to the web.

Pate:

That's what the phone is for, call the county auditor and ask them.

Henderson:

What's the last day, Mr. Fitzgerald, that I can cast my absentee ballot?

Fitzgerald:

The last day you can actually have it postmarked is November 2nd, the Monday before. And the final day is you can drop it off at your county auditor's office up until nine o'clock on Election Day. When it comes to satellites, you know, we had our biggest day of COVID yesterday, and we've also had the Hawkeye football canceled. So the numbers are going in the wrong direction. And so a lot of these counties are going probably back up from satellites and encourage you to come to your local county auditor's office. In our office we have social distancing, we have Plexiglas, our staff will be wearing PPEs, but we want to let people know this isn't really business as usual still because these numbers are going the wrong direction.

Cummings:

Mr. Fitzgerald, walk us through what happens when you receive an absentee ballot to your office? Where does it go? And at what point do you start counting them?

Fitzgerald:

Sure. So once we receive your actual ballot into our office, we'll input it into the statewide voter database. So the Secretary of State has got a great tracking system where you can see when you requested your ballot, when we mailed you your ballot and when your ballot came back. And we'll have those in a locked room, we have security on that room. We have cameras on the room. So, and then we'll start opening the Monday before, unless there's another emergency declaration. You know, we're counting on having a lot more than we ever have in the past. We went from having 7,500 in the primary to almost 55,000. And we look for that number to increase also in the general election.

Henderson:

When do you count them?

Fitzgerald:

We run them through on Monday, we don't tabulate them. So we don't know who's winning and losing. That's in Iowa Code. But every county auditor I assume is going to do it that way this year where you're going to start on Monday. The code is you have to be done by 10 o'clock on election night and that's going to be a heavy lift for a lot of these counties.

Yepsen:

So let me just, so I'm clear, you open the absentee ballot, but you don't tabulate it until the Monday before the election?

Fitzgerald:

We don't open the absentee ballot until Monday before the election.

Yepsen:

Until Monday before the election -- and then it's fed into a computer and actually counted?

Fitzgerald:

Tabulated, yes.

Yepsen:

Are other counties going to have similar problems with getting all these votes counted?

Pate:

Well, based on what we experienced in the primary, we didn't have a problem. We did give them extra time as Jamie alluded to. So they had plenty of time to get them tabulated. In fact, frankly, the people voting absentee sped the process up in many ways because we had most of them already done and they were ready to go by the 10 o'clock hour.

Cummings:

Mr. Fitzgerald, Secretary Pate just mentioned briefly, you know, vote early. There are some Iowans who are concerned amid all of this national conversation about postal delays, etcetera, that their vote won't get counted. So what is your advice in terms of timelines for Iowans to adhere to in terms of when they should send their ballot off?

Fitzgerald:

Well, we think you should send your ballot off when you're comfortable sending it whether that's October 7th, there's a lot of stuff on the ballot this year. There's more than just President and Senator. Some of your county races, but there's also like in Polk County the Broadlawns board of trustees, there's 28 judges. There's a potential constitutional issue. So we want to make sure you kick the tires enough to understand who you're voting for. We wanted it as soon as you can. I mean, every county auditor, all 99, Democrats, Republicans, urban and rural, want to get those ballots in as soon as you can. That will also stop a lot of the phone calls you're going to end up getting. This, this election cycle has been different like every everyone else's, but instead of being at your door, they're now at your phone, they're on your email, they're on Zoom calls. So this will help stop those when you start getting tired of it.

Yepsen:

But it won't shut off the TV commercials. Kay?

Henderson:

Mr. Pate, is Iowa unique in that if I am choosing to vote via an absentee ballot, I can track it?

Pate:

We were probably one of the first states that were doing that and more states are joining it. I think it's a great tool. I've always told people that, you know, it's always disturbed me when I had someone say, how do I know my vote counted? And I go, well, you can track it.

Henderson:

How do I do that?

Pate:

You can go right onto the secretary of state's website and you'll put the information in about your personal information, and it'll tell you where it's at. And again, it's, it'll show when your request was put out for your ballot and it'll show when it was returned. And that to me would make me feel better in this day and age of, you know, voting.

Yepsen:

You put your name --

Pate:

And address and birth date, it's real simple.

Henderson:

Mr. Fitzgerald, there will be tens of thousands of Iowans, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iowans who vote on November 3rd at a precinct. Are you in Polk County having trouble recruiting the precinct workers to run the voting on Election Day? And what are you hearing from your colleagues in other counties?

Fitzgerald:

That's another great question. We are always having problems. You know, everyone agrees early that they want to do it, but as you get closer, sometimes they have second thoughts. We're counting on the Secretary of State's PR campaign to help bring some more people in, you know, because you can never have enough. And we have to be able to open a lot of these, a lot more precincts than we opened and polling sites than we did in the primary. So we're always looking for people, you know, some counties democrats volunteer and some counties republicans volunteer, but you have to load balance these. So in the democratic auditor counties I'm sure they needed republicans and the republican auditor counties I'm sure they need Democrats.

Henderson:

Mr. Pate, he mentioned a PR campaign. What is the outcome then?

Pate:

Well, we're seeing great response. We did it in the primary. We identified over a thousand potential poll workers. We need 10,000 though roughly for the statewide effort this fall. So we started a campaign, we're out there you're going to hear more of it both through the radio, newsprint, a little television maybe, a lot of social media, but you know, we're appealing to people. We need your help. And you can reach out to your local county auditor and volunteer.

Yepsen:

How old do you have to be?

Pate:

17 or older. We're doing this also to take some of the pressure off our seniors, because they are more of the at risk population for the COVID and that's a big part of this as well.

Yepsen:

So a person watching this program, if they want to be a poll watcher, what do they do? Contact their county auditor's office?

Pate:

Reach out to your county auditor is the quickest way to do it. They can also go to our website and we have a mechanism where they can sign up.

Yepsen:

And then what happens, Mr. Fitzgerald?

Fitzgerald:

A lot of times they go into a queue for Polk County. Like I said, we're trying to get different people in different locations. So right now we're pretty deep on democrats that are in Polk County that had wanted to do it, but we're not as deep in republicans.

Henderson:

Are you having trouble finding precinct locations?

Fitzgerald:

Precinct locations are always an issue. You know, when we talked about this about three months ago when we were here, when we reduced the number and you were able to use the schools. There is still a mechanism that allows you to use the schools and we'll do a few of them, but we're still hopeful they're going to be in school and their goals and our goals are not the same thing. You know, they can't put us in a broom closet, but that fits the law. So that's going to be an issue going forward.

Cummings:

We've talked a lot about different election laws that have changed recently, you touched on voter ID, we looked at this voter database. Are there any suggestions to the legislature about further changes in the future that need to happen to the state's elections laws? Mr. Fitzgerald?

Fitzgerald:

Well, I mean, I think in the primary, a lot of people enjoyed having the 40 days to vote early. When you're dealing with a pandemic and you're trying to jam everybody into 29 days that wants to vote in your office that makes it a little more difficult. We're up for the challenge. But that was something that was brought up. And you know, now Secretary Pate would have to go back to the legislative council and I'm not sure they have the appetite to do that again, but it did really help in the primary.

Pate:

We're going to look at all of what we've done here during this pandemic to plan for what improvements we should do. We'll work with the county auditor's association and bring some of those suggestions in January. But we're going to assess it more after the November election.

Yepsen:

So you don't have anything specific --

Pate:

No, no top 10 yet.

Yepsen:

Mr. Fitzgerald, we got just a few seconds left. How soon are we going to know the outcome of the election? Will it be election night or are we looking at election week before we know the outcome?

Fitzgerald:

We're confident we're going to have it election night. The way we've operated in the past, we've done, you know, a hundred thousand absentees. We're going to probably get close to double that or one and a half times. And we're, very confident we're going to have our results out there.

Yepsen:

So Iowans will know the outcome on election night?

Fitzgerald:

I'm pretty confident of that, yes.

Yepsen:

I know you're busy. Thank you very much for being with us, appreciate it. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press when we'll discuss the campaign for racial justice in Iowa. Our guests will be democratic state representatives, Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines and Ras Smith of Waterloo. That's Iowa Press next week on our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

 

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