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The life of an absentee ballot: a behind-the-scenes look at voting security

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Absentee Ballots
A bi-partisan team sends out absentee ballots

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY AIRED AND WAS PUBLISHED IN MAY 2020

LINN COUNTY, Iowa (KWWL) -- The June 2nd Primary Election is less than a month away and so far, some Eastern Iowa counties are seeing record-breaking participation with absentee ballot requests.

This year the Iowa Secretary of State has encouraged all Iowa to cast their ballots from home, sending out request forms to the address of every registered, active voter. The last day to request an absentee ballot is May 22nd.

So far, Linn County Auditor, Joel Miller, and Johnson County Auditor, Travis Weipert said the number of requests has been in the tens of thousands.

"We're going to set a record level here in Johnson County for a primary," said Weipert.

"We have about 37,000 ballots that we have mailed out to date, which is probably 60% more voters than we normally have participated in a primary," said Miller.

However, some voters wonder how the process differs from in-person voting. Both Miller and Weipert said they've received more inquired about the process and concerns about the security.

"You know I hear people say, 'I don't trust it'. I can assure you that it's a very trustworthy operation. We now have intelligent barcodes that go on ballots so we track them," said Miller.

"It's a lot of little things people don't see that when they say, oh, 'absentee voting is full of fraud'. Well, that's just a total myth," said Weipert.

So let's look at the process, it may vary slightly by county, but Linn and Johnson's process' are nearly identical.

KWWL News 7 got a behind the scenes look at the 7-step process as election staff worked in Linn County.

It all starts at the Linn County Services Building where absentee request forms are received. Part of the form indicates what ballot a voter receives, whether it's Republican or Democrat.

"If you're an Independent you have to pick a party, you don't get some in between ballot. And the other thing is, we have different ballot styles based on where you live," explained Weipert.

Step two, absentee request forms are digitized in a secure storage room in the basement of the Linn County Services Building to ensure every voter only gets one ballot.

Labels are then attached to the secrecy envelope, Weipert said this step determines what kind of ballot the voter receives.

"The labels will tell us, with a barcode on it, what ballot they need. Then we have another group fold it and stuff it in that secret envelope and seal it. Then it goes into a tray, the tray goes over to our postage meter," said Weipert.

The group who mails the envelopes is a bi-partisan team including a Republican and a Democrat, a requirement by law.

Once a voter fills out their ballot and sends it back to the county auditor, it's received and verified. Linn County's Deputy Commissioner of Elections, Rebecca Stonawski said it's crucial voters remember to sign.

"We have a bipartisan team a Democrat and Republican citizen, that take this envelope and they separate the ballot. So it's not kept together, we keep the signature forever," said Stonawski.

If anyone is worried that someone voted on their behalf, the auditors office is able to check the signature, however as Stonawski said the ballot is kept separate.

Once the signature and envelope are verified, the bar-code is scanned into a database. The bar-code ensures the ballot is tracked at every step, and that no voter can submit more than one ballot.

"We're scanning in the envelope to make sure that we have a record of what date it is received. Those ballots will go into our secure cage back here, only three people have access to that room and the ballots remain there until the citizen Board of Democrats and Republicans comes to count them on Election Day," said Stonawski.

"We can verify just about every aspect of this, we can verify when the request came in, we can verify when the ballot went out. We can verify when the ballot got put back into the mail. We can verify that that we received the ballot," said Miller.

The ballot scanners are tested with sample ballots for accuracy and then secured said Stonawski, "with a seal that has a number and a code on it, to be sure that on Election Day nothing's been tampered with."

On Election Day a bi-partisan team will ensure the physical ballots match up to the database and are finally counted.

"It seems like a lot more steps for us but you have to remember we're required to have three people at every precinct on Election Day. So right now trying to find enough people to work those sites, in and of itself is a huge task right now," said Weipert.

As most poll workers tend to be older Iowans, Auditors Weipert and Miller, as well as other auditors in the state, hope voters take advantage to vote from home and use the opportunity to practice for the November General Election.

"I want the people to trust us. Trust that this process that we have not only in Linn County but in the surrounding counties, in the entire state is a verifiable trusting process," said Miller.

Each day auditor offices check obituaries and remove ballots of those who have died, a requirement by law.

The barcode process also ensure someone cannot cast an absentee ballot and then show up at the polls on Election Day to cast another ballot.

Black Hawk County has also seen record breaking interest in absentee voting for a primary election. This year the auditors office has received just shy of 16,000 requests for ballots. In 2018, 8,500 absentee ballots were cast in the county.

Author Profile Photo

Ashley Neighbor

Reporter, Cedar Rapids

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