Pandemic Impacts on Primary Elections

Iowa Press | Episode
May 15, 2020 | 26 min

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 the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the upcoming primary elections and what voters need to know. 


The gears of democracy keep moving during an ongoing pandemic. But questions remain how Iowans will safely vote during the coronavirus outbreak. We dive deeper with Iowa election officials on this edition of Iowa Press.


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.


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, May 15 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: The coronavirus outbreak has ground some aspects of society to a partial or complete halt. But politics and the reality of 2020 as an election year still remain. There is renewed interest focused on early absentee voting. Questions remain over how safe elections can proceed during an ongoing pandemic. Joining our election-centered conversation are Polk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections, Jamie Fitzgerald, a democrat and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a republican who is also President of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Gentlemen, welcome to the show. Good to see you both. Thanks for taking time out to be with us.

Yepsen: Joining us across the table is Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: June primary coming up. Mr. Pate, what is your prediction in terms of turnout in the midst of a pandemic?

Pate: Well, actually I think the pandemic has put a much stronger emphasis on getting out and voting. People are home, they're paying attention to what the government is doing. Clearly from the absentee ballot requests that the county auditors have seen we're going to probably be a record if not already as far as primaries go.

Henderson: Mr. Fitzgerald, what are you seeing in your office in Iowa's largest county?

Fitzgerald: Well, we're seeing a lot of people that want to participate at home. We're seeing no parties who got the postage paid absentee ballot requests from the Secretary of State's office, we're seeing them change parties and participate. Usually you have primaries are a family fight, it's candidate versus candidate, the party is not involved. So we're seeing that when you make it easier for people to vote that they are taking advantage of it. A normal early voting process for the Polk County Auditor's Office is about 9,000 for a primary. This morning we were over 10,000 returned and we still have 54,000 requests.

Henderson: Mr. Pate, do you have a guess on what percentage of the votes cast in the June 2nd primary will be absentee ballots or early ballots?

Pate: Well, based on the current trends it's probably going to be somewhere around 60% because when you look at our primary, as Jamie has mentioned, it's a lower turnout than a general election and right now we have close to 400,000 absentee ballot requests that are asked for. Now, we're waiting to see if they return them and if those all came back that is more than a primary under normal circumstances, so pretty high numbers.

Henderson: Mr. Fitzgerald?

Fitzgerald: We're seeing that. We think it's going to be 65%, 70%. We're encouraging everybody to vote from home. The deadline to request a ballot, your request has to be in our office by 5:00 p.m. May 22nd. The postage guarantee is May 18th. But we're seeing a lot of people actually participate that normally don't vote in primaries. So in the last 10 days we have actually put out over 50,000 requests. That's general election type numbers. And when you're talking our highest turnout every at a primary was about 50,000 in 2018 you're really now moving the needle on who is going to get elected and who from these parties are going to be nominated.

Yepsen: So, just to be clear, both of you are predicting a record primary vote turnout, absentee vote.



Yepsen: Mr. Fitzgerald, which party benefits from absentee voting? Used to say democrats always had a better get out the vote absentee operation, then republicans came back and their people were turning out and liking to vote early. What is your take on which party will benefit from this in a general election?

Fitzgerald: Well, I think what you look at is who benefits are people that are being safe. You're having people that are now voting safely, making sure they don't spread the virus. We are in the pandemic. Historically it has been democrats but in the last couple of years we've seen the republicans catching up pretty well with their mailers. A lot of these mailers now are coming postage paid so the voter really all they have to do is put their information on the form, put it back in the mailbox, get a ballot from our office and mail it back postage paid. So we're seeing it a little bit percentage wise, number wise more democrats in Polk County, but percentage wise it's getting pretty close.

Yepsen: And you see that in talking to your fellow county auditors, you're the county auditor in Iowa's largest county obviously, do you see that going on, hear that same thing going on around the state?

Fitzgerald: It just really depends on the county. If you have more democrats obviously democrats are going to vote a little heavier, if you have more republicans they're going to vote a little heavier. Places like Woodbury County seem to have more republicans voting early than democrats whereas in Polk County just sheer number wise it's going to be democrats.

Yepsen: Secretary Pate, what is your answer to that question of in a general election in Iowa these days, you're a politician, you run for office, which party benefits? The democrats or the republicans?

Pate: Well, it's a give and take. One cycle you'll see one party out does the other. It's about how aggressive they are in getting out there. But it's clearly based on the machine, the political machine and how hard they work to drive it. The last election cycle the democrats did a better job and especially in the urban settings. This coming election I think you have to be looking at the county by county trend, if you will. But look at the numbers right now, just for this primary for an example, it's almost even. The democrats and republicans both are, that's how they choose to vote because they want to be safe from that standpoint and I think that's what we wanted when we started this process.

Yepsen: Well, let me follow up, Mr. Pate. You're a good republican. Your President Donald Trump says absentee votes go democratic. And yet you're there, here and as a national president of secretaries of state beating the gong for people to vote absentee. Doesn't that make you a pariah in the Trump White House?

Pate: Well, I would say first that I'm here to take care of Iowa. That's what my oath of office is at. And Iowans like choices. They want to choose whether they can vote in person at a polling location, they want to know if they can vote absentee or at the courthouse or curbside. These are their choices and that's my job to make sure they have those. I think clearly we are very confident that we have checks and balances to assure the integrity. Now, we have voter ID in this state, we have post-election audits, we have your peers, your neighbors working at the polling sites. So all these checks and balances make a little more difference than what the President is maybe talking about. I think he's more talking about states who do all by mail vote and that is a totally different animal than what we're doing here.

Yepsen: Are you catching criticism from fellow republicans for being so adamant about absentees?

Pate: Well, I've heard some people concerned about what is the difference between this and going all mail. And I've asked people politely, let's not get the politics into this. What we're doing in Iowa is something that we have done before, absentee. This is not a new process. We have done it successfully and we're doing it this time because it's what needs to be done during this pandemic.

Henderson: Mr. Pate, sadly we have been told by experts that the pandemic is not going to go away any time soon. You decided this spring to send a mailer to every registered voter encouraging them to vote by absentee. At what point do you make that decision for the fall election if at all? Are you planning to do the same thing for the fall election?

Pate: Well, we have more time fortunately. When we looked at the primary, I've told others, these elections don't get done overnight. Jamie can attest to that. There's a lot of work we have to go into to ramp up for them. And the logical thing was to push and promote absentee balloting for the primary not knowing when we were going to peak as far as the virus in our state. The goal is still the same, we want Iowans to be able to vote, we want them to be able to vote safely and we want our poll workers to be safe. We're learning a lot right now going into the primary and that will help decide for the fall.

Henderson: You also added days onto the period for absentee balloting. I believe it was 11. Is that something you'd consider for the fall if indeed you expect more Iowans to be voting by mail?

Pate: I don't know if it will be as crucial going into the fall. We were in a tight window when we decided this back in March. I think we have a lot more planning time. So we'll be spending some time working with auditors and our own staff to figure out what worked, what needs to be improved on as we plan for the fall election.

Yepsen: I want to ask you both, but I'll start with you, Mr. Fitzgerald. Will the polling sites, the number of polling places this primary election be reduced from what it was in the last primary? And if so, is there a danger that Iowans, or people in Polk County, are going to see what we saw in Milwaukee which were huge lines in Wisconsin?

Fitzgerald: That's a great question. Obviously we're going to have to reduce our polling sites in Polk County.

Yepsen: Why?

Fitzgerald: Because you can't staff them. What happened in Milwaukee and what you saw in Florida wasn't that they couldn't get in locations, it was they couldn't get people to staff. In Milwaukee they had to bring in 214 National Guardsmen to help with the process. We came up with a plan, again, this is a family fight type election. They're very low turnout, presidential primaries when the President is done with the caucus is usually about 8% turnout. So we found an area where we could comfortably staff and socially distance. So we're not alone, every county seems to be reducing the number. But I don't want to wake up like they did in Wisconsin and find out that 400 people have quit. So we're constantly training, we're constantly talking to our poll workers and we also talked a lot at our polling sites. We're in historically areas where big turnout areas like Wesley Acres, which is a senior living facility, we're in a number of those and we just weren't comfortable going to them saying, hey can we come in, and the same goes with churches. What you saw in Florida was a lot of churches canceling the night before. So we've actually moved into schools for the first time since probably about 2000 and that is going to be an issue when you get into the November election because as you know hopefully schools will be in session. So we want to find an area that will be socially distanceable, but we also want to make sure we have enough space for voters to come in and not be on top of each other like they were in Illinois.

Yepsen: Mr. Pate, what do you see around the state? Are we going to see counties with lines like they saw in Milwaukee?

Pate: No, I'm pretty comfortable going into the primary we will not because of the high response we've gotten on the absentees. People have listened and they heard, they got the message. Let's vote safe, let's vote from home right now. For those who still want that choice of coming into the polling locations I think we'll be there to accommodate them. I will say to them, let's be patient though and remember it may take a little more than 5 minutes to get your voting done.

Yepsen: What about the general?

Pate: The general, as Jamie mentioned, we're going to spend some serious time over the summer months trying to locate those polling locations and to make sure we have poll workers. I initiate an effort statewide to try to identify and recruit poll workers during the primary and we were pleased we had nearly 1,000 people who signed up. Some of those names we didn't use this time out because just of the window of getting them trained and in place. We'll look at those for the fall.

Yepsen: Are people are the state, other counties, having difficulty recruiting poll workers?

Pate: It's a mixed bag. But I think what we're also wanting to make sure is our poll workers are safe. So we're asking some of our folks who are higher risk as much as they are dedicated and hardworking that they may want to let some of our younger members help them out during this window. So that is another goal we're trying to work towards.

Yepsen: And do you get younger people volunteering to be poll workers coming forward?

Pate: We've seen a great response. We had nearly 1,000 people who responded to our call to duty, if you will, during this last --

Yepsen: Is that for the primary or for the general?

Pate: That was for the primary and we'll ask them to go to the general and help too.

Yepsen: Is it too late to volunteer to help in the primary?

Fitzgerald: We actually pay our poll workers so it's never too late. We keep a long roster of extra help, mainly because say somebody is a poll worker and they're a little bit older and they’re nervous, we don't want them to go and get sick. So we want to make sure that we keep them safe and prepared. So we actually have an online training we're proposing as well.

Yepsen: Other counties do that too?

Pate: Yes.

Henderson: Mr. Pate, when we saw the pictures from Wisconsin we saw that they were cleaning the booth, if you will, after every voter, there was hand sanitizer, people were wearing what we now call PPE, everybody knows what that means now. Who is in charge of making sure that is at the polling site? Is it at the county expense or is the state bearing some of that?

Pate: Well, the county auditors carry the major responsibility. They are local commissioners of elections. What we have done is worked with the federal Homeland Security and others to get those supplies and materials, to pass onto them best practices and we've gotten that. In fact, the National Guard has been working with us this week and next to deliver those supplies from the masks, the hand sanitizer, social distancing markers, a full list. We've gotten some federal grant money we have passed onto the counties to help in the cleaning of these sites both during an election and after the election. So there is a full array of services we've tried to make sure they have had and we're still working on that one.

Henderson: Mr. Fitzgerald, people are talking about a phrase that maybe people aren't familiar with. What is curbside service?

Fitzgerald: So curbside voting has always been allowed. In all the years I've been county auditor we have allowed it. You'll go in, there's actually a placard that is out front, you'll call that placard and then we'll send 2 poll workers out, historically a democrat and a republican, and we'll go out and get your ballot right there, you'll vote right there from your car and come back in.

Henderson: Do you think you'll have more use of that because of the situation?

Fitzgerald: I believe we will. Our goal is to have every voter that wants to participate to participate. If that makes it easier for them we're all for it.

Yepsen: We talked about absentee voting, let's talk about counting those results on election night. Mr. Fitzgerald, is this going to slow the counting of results on primary night?

Fitzgerald: It's not going to slow the counting of results for us in Polk County. We're familiar with doing up to close to 100,000 requests being completed ballots. So it's not going to slow how we do business. It's going to slow some of these smaller counties that aren't used to getting the numbers they have now and they don't have the staffing levels to go out and count them. We bought a high speed letter opener to help open these because as you guys may know we usually have about 200 people show up with the letter openers and open them. That's just not going to be feasible for this election so we bought a letter opener and we'll have a number of people that are helping us. But we don't think that we're going to have a problem.

Yepsen: And Secretary Pate, what about those smaller rural counties? Are they going to have problems with this onslaught of, avalanche of absentees?

Pate: It is a challenge and I've been on the phone and visiting with county auditors, we've had a series of discussions on this. I've received actually I think about all 99 of the counties have reached out to us in some way or another asking for moving the opportunity to open those absentees on a Monday like we do in a general election. And I think we have to start looking at all options to get them open.

Henderson: Does that mean that Iowans may not know the results of the primary election until a day later?

Pate: I would hope not. We don't want to send that kind of message out that we're spending more and more time to count like some states have had to do. We're staying focused on that. The dialogue with the auditors right now we're having is I'm comfortable we're going to get those results. But I'll be honest with you media folks here, don't look to us at 9:05 to have us posting all the results. I know we're good, but we need a little more time this time out to get that done. But I'm pretty comfortable we'll know the results before we go to bed.

Yepsen: We'll give you to 9:15.

Pate: Okay.

Yepsen: I'm curious though, what's the big hurry, aside from the fact that reporters and people want to know the outcome? You can't have any victory parties, right? That's going to be a change for elections isn't it?

Pate: We can all get on Zoom or Skype.

Yepsen: Mr. Pate, it's my understanding that ballots are opened, absentee ballots get opened in the auditor's office but they don't get tabulated until later, until after the polls close. Is that true statewide?

Pate: For general elections the auditors have the option to run those through a tabulation on Monday before the Tuesday, not in a primary at this present time.

Yepsen: So should the legislature change that to enable Auditor Fitzgerald and his people and all the other auditors to -- they've got these big stacks of absentees --

Henderson: Or do you have the power to do that in an emergency?

Pate: Those are both good points. And that is exactly what we're looking into right now. I'm visiting with legislative leadership that are going to be in Des Moines today so we're talking to them about it too because it makes sense, we do it in a general election and a primary is logical. When it was passed in I think it was 2008 it was passed overwhelming majority all agreed, in the House 98 and the Senate was unanimous to do it.

Yepsen: So just so I'm clear and so our viewers are clear, you cannot open an absentee ballot in the county auditor’s office in a primary early?

Pate: You can open it, you can't process it, basically what Jamie is saying, you can open the envelope and pull out the privacy envelope and get everything ready for running it through the tabulator.

Yepsen: But in a general election how is that different?

Pate: The law. It says that you can run it through a tabulator and get it counted, no posting, no information is shared, it's sitting there so that when the polls close at 9:00 it's there.

Yepsen: What should the legislature do, Mr. Fitzgerald?

Fitzgerald: Just to help all the counties we'd prefer to do it Monday. We don't know the results so there's no sense in calling our house or calling our office to see who is winning and losing. But I think every county could use that because Election Day is going to be taxing. You're going to have a whole set of different issues. In Polk County we're giving every voter their own pen. We want you to take it with you. So those other counties are giving gloves. So it's going to be a different election. So if we could take this off our plate for the majority of them that would be great. But if not we're prepared to move forward on Tuesday.

Henderson: Mr. Fitzgerald, if you could just counsel people who have never done an absentee before, this is the very first time they're doing it. How do I safely cast that ballot to ensure that it's counted?

Fitzgerald: Well, the safest thing you can do is to follow the instructions. Every election we've highlighted every section you need to do which is sign it and date it. And we still have a number in Polk County that haven't done that so we're on the phone trying to get a hold of them to come down, give them their options of what they have. The easiest way to make sure that you're through the whole process is to go to the Secretary of State's website and they have an absentee ballot tracker, where it's at in the process. This is the last election before intelligent mail comes into play. As people may remember in the last general election there were a number of ballots that didn't have postmarks but they had the intelligent mail, the legislature made a decision on that, but they also made a decision that starting in October we're going to have intelligent mail for everything.

Yepsen: That is the little barcode on an envelope that enables you to what, see when it was actually --

Fitzgerald: We can see when it got to the post office, when it got delivered, when it came back.

Henderson: Mr. Pate, what is the most common error that people make that you want to remind them not to make this time around?

Pate: As Jamie said, sign it. You'd be amazed sometimes people just forget to do those things. A lot of them just grab, when the absentee ballot arrives at their home they do their voting part and stick it back in an envelope maybe and not do the rest. And really there's only about six little instructions on there. If they just take the time to read it, it's really easy to do, and they'll be assured of getting their vote counted. And I want to underscore, if they go to our website, which is, they can track the absentee ballot process. So when the auditor's office receives your request it will show that, it will show when the auditor sends it out, it will show when it gets back to the auditor's office so you know it got there.

Yepsen: But wouldn't you be better off as a voter to personally make sure that you have put that in a drop box at the postal service about a week ahead of the election?

Pate: I wouldn't be waiting until the deadline myself. Let's get it done now. That is why we have encouraged people, it's there, just process it and get it done.

Yepsen: We have just a couple of minutes left. Mr. Pate, how will this coronavirus episode and this pandemic change the way we campaign in America?

Pate: Well, we've already seen it, a lot of the campaigns have had to shift dramatically. You're not having rallies, you're not having even the door-to-door effort you'd normally have. It's digital all the way and that means they're leaning towards technology and that is going to, and direct mail is still there. It's unfortunately I think if we have to lean too heavy that way it might put costs a little higher because you can't use a volunteer base like you used to.

Henderson: Mr. Pate, as Chair of the National Association for election officials at every state, are you asking anything of Congress in the midst of this pandemic in terms of financial support for states and in Iowa's case counties?

Pate: Sure. Well, we've been pleased that we were able to get the funding we have received so far to assist with this special situation this year. We did ask them to waive the match, they sent this money to the states and said oh by the way 20% match. Well most state's legislatures have adjourned so how do you get the match to be able to draw the money to be able to use it for the election? Fortunately most states have figured out ways to deal with that. But we've asked them to waive that. But we've also asked them nicely and politely, let's not get into politics here. We talked about Jamie being the democrat and I being the republican, not right now. We're doing our jobs and we don't really want Congress coming in here and trying to utilize this as a platform to start pointing out this is how we want elections run. This isn't the time for that.

Yepsen: Less than a minute left. Mr. Pate, is there anything else you want from the legislature that you see you need to get done because they're going to come in and they're not going to be back before November. Anything else?

Pate: Well, fortunately we're set. I think we just want to make sure we update them so come January there may be some discussion on how they want to pursue future things like this.

Yepsen: Was there anything, Mr. Fitzgerald, that county auditors want or need out of this session?

Fitzgerald: Every county always needs money but we also think that opening up going back to 40 days would be helpful.

Yepsen: 40 days?

Fitzgerald: Of early voting. That would be very helpful in terms of how you process requests. Getting in 50,000 in 10 days is a lot of work.

Yepsen: But that's a partisan issue. Mr. Pate, do you think republicans are going to want to go along and do that?

Pate: I think that's why I said we'll have to wait until January and see how that discussion goes.

Yepsen: Okay.

Pate: It's not going to happen during this period.

Yepsen: We're out of time. Thank you both for being with us today.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for being with us.



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.,