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Planning to vote absentee? Here is what you need to know

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KWWL)- In just over a week, election officials across Iowa will begin mailing absentee ballots to voters who have sent in ballot request forms.

Ballots will be mailed out on Monday, October 5, the same day early voting begins.

With the ongoing pandemic, election officials expect a record number of voters will choose to vote by mail this year. A recent poll released by AARP found a nearly 50-50 split among Iowa voters when asked if they would vote in person or absentee.

Wondering what you will get in the mail?

In the video above, Linn County Deputy Commissioner of Elections Rebecca Stonawski walks you through an absentee ballot.

Sometime around October 6 or 7, you'll get an envelope with your name on it. It won't have any party affiliation on it.

On the envelope, you'll see bar codes. The state requires IMB tracking so election officials can track the ballot. To be counted, it has to be mailed by Monday, November 2nd.

Voters can also put the ballots in the dropbox outside the Linn County Public Service Center until 9 p.m. on election night.

Inside the envelope, there are a set of instructions on how to fill it out.

You'll also find a yellow secrecy sleeve to keep your ballot secret. Ballots are disqualified in some states if they don't have the sleeve, but Stonawski said that is not the case in Iowa.

"Our bipartisan team, a group of Democrats and Republicans that are appointed by those parties, will separate that ballot and put a new secrecy sleeve on," she said. "Therefore, making sure that your ballot is kept secret throughout the process."

Throughout the process, Miller said the bipartisan team does not know who the ballots are from.

"So when they pull the ballot out, it becomes anonymous at that point," he said.

"Fatal Mistakes": Making sure your ballot counts

The biggest reason mail-in ballots are not counted is not being signed.

Voters must sign the affidavit on the envelope verifying they are a citizen and are only voting once in the election. If not, it's a fatal mistake, and the ballot will not count.

"If you do not sign, we cannot count your ballot," Stonawski said. "There's also an orange piece of paper in the envelope saying sign the envelope because we want your ballot to count."

In the June primary election, Miller said election officials had to throw out 600 of the 45,000 absentee ballots sent in by Linn County voters because they weren't signed.

That was at 25% turnout in June but Miller expects it to be closer to 80% in November. He estimates missing signatures could cause between 1,800 and 2,000 ballots to be thrown out.

"That could throw a race in Linn County," Miller said.

Election officials recommend you fill in the ovals next to your preferred candidates very darkly to make it clear who you are voting for.

When it comes to write-ins, voters often miss an important step.

"If you want to write in yourself or somebody else that you trust and believe in for a position, you must fill in the circle and then write the name," Stonawski said. "Sometimes, people forget to fill in that write in a circle, and then the vote in that race does not count."

Just as common, voters often fill in the oval for a candidate in a race while also writing their name on the write-in line.

"It doesn't disqualify every race on the ballot but it disqualifies that race," Miller said.

Sometimes, married couples who both request absentee ballots will send them both back in the same envelope. When that happens, those ballots don't count.

"Only one ballot, one envelope, one person," Stonawski said. "Do not return more than one ballot in an envelope."

When you vote in-person early, or on election day, you can cast a provisional ballot if you don't have an ID or proof of address. But there is no second chance with mail-in voting.

"I call it an exam," Miller said. "You have to get 100% on that exam or you don't get an absentee ballot."

So what happens to ballots that are disqualified?

Election officials keep track of the number of spoiled ballots.

After the election, they send out letters to those voters, letting them know their ballot was not counted and explaining why.

With the surge in mail-in voting, Miller said it would be a tight crunch to get results in by the 10 p.m. deadline on election night. If everything goes as planned, he expects to have the first results shortly after polls close.

On Friday, the Iowa Legislative Council approved an emergency directive from Secretary of State Paul Pate that granted local election officials more time.

For more on the basics of voting in the Hawkeye State, click here.

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Daniel Perreault

Reporter

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