Absentee forms the right thing

Iowa’s voter turnout in the June 2 primary election set a record. And almost 80 percent of those who voted did so by mail-in ballot.

Those two facts are related. 

Political veterans ascribe the high turnout to the fact that people didn’t have to venture out during the pandemic. That’s because Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, sent a request form for an absentee ballot to every registered voter in the state. 

The Iowa Constitution endows the secretary of state with the power to regulate elections in the state.

A voter could simply fill out the request form, send it in, receive the requested ballot in the mail, then vote and send it back to the county auditor in the return envelope that accompanied the ballot. Easy peasy.

But as of now, that high turnout won’t likely be repeated in the November general election, especially if COVID-19 is still around at that time.

That’s because Iowa legislators have handcuffed Secretary Pate. 

Republican leaders in the Iowa House and Senate, after the record primary turnout, decided that Pate had overstepped his authority in sending absentee ballot requests to every voter. 

That’s a questionable premise. 

But they adopted, and Gov. Reynolds signed, a bill that leaves it up to the Legislative Council as to whether Pate can repeat his mailing in the future.

The Iowa Legislative Council comprises two dozen legislators, 13 of them Republican and the other nine Democratic. By a straight party line vote of 13-9 they decided on Wednesday of last week to reject a request from Democratic Sen. Pam Jochum to have Pate repeat his mass mailing in this November’s election.

Pate himself hasn’t made that request, and the Legislative Council could always hand down a different decision if he does so. But it’s pretty clear that GOP legislative leaders oppose a repeat of Pate’s initiative from the June primary.

So it looks as if the state won’t be sending absentee ballot request forms to every Iowa voter for the general election in November.

But county auditors can still do so in their own counties. So can the political parties.

Auditors of some of the state’s largest counties — Johnson (Iowa City), Linn (Cedar Rapids) and Woodbury (Sioux City) — are reportedly planning to follow Pate’s lead.

Greene County Auditor Jane Heun said last week she doesn’t plan to do so, despite the turnout success of the June primary, because of the cost of the mailing. 

She explained that local political party leaders often take on the mailing to voters of their political persuasion, and she expects that might happen for this year’s November election.

I hope it does happen. 

In a democracy, the higher the number of voters, the more likely an election will reflect the will of the people. That’s the reason we elect our leaders in this country, rather than having them appointed by some elite group. That’s why the right to vote has expanded over the years to today’s universal citizen adult suffrage, regardless of wealth, religion, race or sex. Or political affiliation.

COVID-19 makes mail-in voting all the more important as a voting option this year. 

People over 65 — and there are a lot of us in Greene County — are particularly vulnerable to the virus. They may not want to endanger their health by venturing out to mingle at their voting precinct location.

People can always request an absentee ballot on their own. But they may not get around to doing so.

It would be ideal if Greene County’s political parties would jointly agree to split the cost of mailing absentee ballot requests to every registered voter in the county.

There are about 6,500 of those. 

At 50 cents postage apiece, that’s $3,250. Then there’s the cost of postage for the return envelope in which the request would be sent to the auditor’s office. Not everyone would choose to make the request, of course, so let’s say the returns would cost another $2,500. 

And there should be a cover letter in the mailing that would explain what the request is about. So add another $1,500 or so, at 25 cents apiece as a rough estimate. 

The total cost — for absentee ballot request, return mail envelope and cover letter — could be estimated at $7,500. 

Make it $10,000 just to be sure. That’s $5,000 for each of the two county party organizations.

In today’s political environment that’s pretty cheap. It’s not unusual for one state legislative candidate’s campaign to top $100,000 in expenses. A county party organization, if it decided to do so, could certainly raise $5,000 to make sure every registered voter in the county gets an invitation to vote by mail.

By splitting the cost, each party would know that their contributions are equal, and could also be assured that political independents (in Iowa they’re called “no party” voters) are getting ballot requests as well. No one would be left out.

An added incentive: if the state’s larger counties send out absentee ballot requests to every one of their voters, it’s likely their voting percentage will be higher than those of the smaller counties that don’t do so. 

That result would give urban areas more power to decide federal and state elections than they already have. 

Is Greene County willing to accept that?

I hope not.

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