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Iowa auditors ask Secretary of State for more time to count absentee ballots

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WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) - With a record number of voters expected to cast their vote using an absentee ballot for November's election, several auditors are asking Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate for more time to count all of the ballots before election day.

Currently, workers are not allowed to begin until the day before election day. Pate extended the counting period for the June primary election to handle the expected surge in absentee ballots. Turnout in that election was around 25%. Election officials expect it to be at least two to three times that in November.

"I'm not asking for three times as many days but I'd certainly like the option to have more than I have right now," he said.

In a formal petition submitted Tuesday, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller asked Pate to allow election officials to do so again in November.

"Due to COVID-19, many counties expect to at least double the amount of absentee ballots they will count in this year’s general election," he wrote. "With double the amount of absentee ballots to count, it is unreasonable to believe that all Iowa counties will be able to count twice the amount of absentee ballots on the Monday and Tuesday for this General Election."

Miller said he expects to get between 80,000 and 100,000 absentee ballots in Linn County, which under the current rules would put workers in a tight crunch to get results in by the 10 PM deadline on election night.

"If we can't get something change, that means I start at 12:01 a.m. on Monday November 2, and we work like crazy to get everything done," Miller said. "We are going to need more time."

Unexpected hurdles on election night, such as the counties' two high-speed scanners breaking down, could cause serious problems.

Black Hawk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections Grant Veeder has also asked Pate's office to let them get a head start on counting votes.

"We're making preparations to handle the influx," Veeder said. "We will be much better able to handle it if we are giving given this additional time by the Secretary of State's office to open the ballots earlier than we usually do."

In a statement, Kevin Hall, the communications director for Pate, said the office is working with the legislative council to get an extension approved. Hall said he expects they will have it done by the end of the month.

"State law already allows county auditors to begin counting absentee ballots the Monday before the general election. Secretary Pate extended this allowance to this year’s June primary. Auditor Miller is well aware that Secretary Pate would be making a request of the Iowa Legislative Council to provide auditors more time to prepare absentee ballots for counting ahead of Election Day in November. All 99 county auditors were informed last month."

Kevin Hall, Communications Director for Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate

Miller said he filed the petition because there has been some talk about extending it, but no action toward doing so. He wants this issue to be addressed now in September before it is too late.

"I want to, unfortunately, force the Secretary of State into at least holding the hearing, and fleshing this out," he said. "I don't think I'm going to be the only one in tough shape to or fearful that we might not be able to meet the deadline."

According to the state of Iowa's Administrative Rules website, the rulemaking process could take up to 108 days to complete. With less than two months until election day, any rule change would need to be approved quickly to have any chance of taking effect.

While he hopes the extension will be in place for November, Miller said it should be permanent since he expects the flood of absentee ballots this year will lead to a flood of absentee ballots for years to come.

"We found with the June primary that people who had never voted by mail before did it and found it convenient and want to do it again," he said. "The pandemic initiated it, but it's not going to be the last time that we're going to be overburdened with all these absentee ballots coming in."

Miller said he would hate to see a situation like New York, where election officials did not report results of a primary for weeks. He said it would just foster more skepticism and mistrust in Iowa's election system.

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Daniel Perreault

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