By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
Despite a new state law that shortens the time frame for early voting, Iowa is on pace to match if not exceed the number of early votes cast in 2014, the most recent midterm election.
With roughly the same number of early votes being cast — but 11 fewer days in which to handle the demand — some county election officials across the state say the compressed time frame has caused some stress. Others, however, say the impact to their staffs has been negligible.
One piece of the controversial elections bill passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature and signed into law by then-GOP Gov. Terry Branstad was a provision that reduced the state’s early voting period from 40 to 29 days.
The 2018 midterm election this Tuesday is the first general election since that law was passed. Despite the fewer days in which to cast an early vote, either by absentee ballot or in person at an auditor’s office or satellite locations, early votes are coming in at roughly the same levels as they did in 2014.
As of Friday, the latest update, county auditors had received a total of 447,454 absentee ballots, according to the Iowa Secretary of State.
“It’s being felt in my office for sure,” said Eric Van Lancker, auditor and elections commissioner for Clinton County in Eastern Iowa. “As I kind of predicted would happen, what we’re seeing here in Clinton County is we’re dealing with the same amount of absentee voters, just in a shorter amount of time.”
Van Lancker said in-person early voting has remained strong, so his office is seeing roughly 100 in-person voters daily, an increase of about 20 a day over 2014.
“In the office, we’ve definitely felt it, working the counter with voters,” he said. “It’s added stress on the staff.”
Van Lancker said he did not hire additional staff for this year’s elections, but will consider doing so in 2020 for the presidential election, when early voting is expected to be even busier.
Travis Weipert, the Johnson County Auditor and president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, said his staff also is feeling the effect of more votes in a shorter time frame.
Johnson County voters already have surpassed early voter turnout in the state’s last midterm election.
“That’s why I ask people to be patient with our poll workers. We’re trying to get people through as quickly as possible,” Weipert said.
The county had received 26,349 ballots as of Friday — about 66 percent of them from registered Democrats and about 15 percent from registered Republicans.
In Benton County, Auditor Hayley Rippel said the shorter time frame has made for a busier election season there.
“We seemed to have been slammed in that shorter time frame with those outgoing ballot requests by mail,” she said.
Rippel said her office has seen more absentee ballots returned than in the 2014 midterm.
As of Friday, the county had taken 2,869 early ballots — about 33 percent from registered Democrats and about 40 percent from registered Republicans
Other county auditors said they have been able to spread the additional workload; some hired additional staff in anticipation of the condensed schedule’s impact.
“We hired additional staff that we normally would have for a midterm election,” said Jamie Fitzgerald, auditor for Polk County, the state’s most populous. “That’s something we planned for early on.”
But not all counties are seeing an increase in early voting. Auditors in Scott and Black Hawk counties, for example, said early voting numbers are projected to be down this time.
Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz said a lack of contested Statehouse races there may be part of the reason.
Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder said he thinks the tightened time frame may be contributing to the lower early voting numbers.
“We’re looking like we probably won’t reach the same level that we had four years ago. We’re going to fall short of that,” he said. “I can’t do anything but give you my best guess, but it would appear to me that the shortened window had something to do with it.”
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said the true impact of the shortened early voting period will not be known until after the election.
Pate, a Republican, initiated the legislation that ultimately contained the shortened period, but that element was not his recommendation; it was added later by Republican state legislators.
“I’m not sure we have an answer yet on that. We’re going to have to wait and give it some time to work itself through,” Pate said.
Polk County’s Fitzgerald said the shortened time frame has forced campaigns to rework their voting strategies.
Campaigns like to secure early votes — whether by mail or in-person — because it locks in the vote without having to contend with Election Day uncertainties. Securing early votes has played an increasing role in campaign strategy over the past decade.
By Friday, Iowa Democrats in 2018 already have surpassed their 2014 early vote totals an still had three more days. Democrats have held more than 50 early voting events during the period, a state party spokeswoman said.
“Iowa Democrats have put in the work. We’ve known from the start that this election was going to be an uphill climb, so we’ve had our noses to the grindstone for the past two years to produce results like this: more Democrats energized for the midterms than ever before,” Iowa Democratic Party state chairman Troy Price said in a statement. “I am incredibly proud of our campaigns and volunteers for the unprecedented effort they have put in to make sure that Iowans are heard at the ballot box this year, and I cannot wait to see the results of that work this coming Tuesday.”
Iowa Republicans are roughly on pace to post a similar early vote total to four years ago.
“Iowa Democrats are fired up to do one thing and one thing only: regain power in Des Moines and in Washington. If that happens, they will raise taxes and tear down the progress we have seen in Iowa and across the country,” Republican Party of Iowa state chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement. “Because of the stakes, we’re not taking any votes for granted. If Republicans don’t turn out, we could lose everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish over the last two years.”
Elections officials and political scientists say early voting numbers cannot predict the outcome, but can help indicate voter interest.
“I think it tells us that the interest is high, potentially higher than it was in 2014,” said Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “And I think it tells us that turnout potentially could be up overall compared to the last midterm election. Beyond that, it’s hard to know.”
Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette contributed to this report.