Iowa Views: Absentee figures are historic

Iowa Views: Absentee figures are historic

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The Quad-City Times published the following editorial on May 13:

As of May 12, the Iowa Secretary of State’s office reported that more than 356,000 Iowans had asked for absentee ballots for the June primary.

If you don’t follow these things, that number may not surprise you. But, trust us, it’s amazing. In 2016, about 38,000 people voted by absentee. Two years later, it was roughly 50,000.

We don’t know how many of these new ballots will come back. But, typically, more than 90% are returned.

If that happens this year it would mean about 320,000 people will vote, by and large, by mail. In a primary. That would be a more than 600% increase over two years ago.

Mind you, these figures don’t even count how many requests will come in over the nearly three weeks between now and the June 2 primary. (We would also note the number of ballot requests have already surpassed the approximately 290,000 people who actually voted in the 2018 primary).

This is a huge change in democracy as it’s practiced in Iowa. People are worried about voting in traditional polling places, and they’re perfectly fine with casting their ballots by mail. They prefer it.

In fact, as a longtime political pro in Iowa told us, voters didn’t even seem to mind sending in a postcard-like request form that left vulnerable their personal data, like date of birth and driver’s license number. (The Secretary of State’s office and U.S. Postal Service have given assurances the data is secure, according to the Des Moines Register.)

The Secretary of State’s office recently sent the forms to every registered voter in Iowa, which was a smart move and one that is clearly a major factor in the increased number of requests. There are competitive U.S. House and Senate races, too, but they have mostly flown under the radar. The real lesson in this is that Iowans aren’t willing to risk their health to vote in person — not when a reliable alternative is readily available. And they clearly see voting by mail as a reliable alternative.

More Democrats are making absentee requests than Republicans but the GOP, too, is breaking records. More than 157,000 Republicans have asked for an absentee ballot, which is 10 times the number it was for the entire primary election two years ago. Clearly, Republicans also are more comfortable voting by mail than in person at this time.

There’s a lesson in this for policymakers. Iowans want to be safe. They don’t want to risk getting sick by standing in line at a polling place. That sentiment also was made clear by what happened in Illinois, where turnout in the March primary was down significantly as the coronavirus threat was in its early stages and voters were scared go to the polls.

With a later primary, Iowa voters have had more time to access an alternative – and they clearly are eager to take it.

We think policymakers, whether they’re in the legislature or otherwise, would be smart to accommodate this new desire. It’s impossible to tell what the fall general election will look like, but if there is a second wave of COVID-19 cases, which most medical experts say is a real threat, you can bet Iowans — Illinoisans, too — will want to take this safer option.

Politicians who stand in their way may well pay the price for that resistance.

So, what should they do?

We think, at the least, it means doing what was done in the primary: Sending a request to every registered voter so they can make their own choice whether to vote in person or by absentee. Allowing more time to vote by absentee is also a good idea.

The stakes in the general election are high. It is a presidential election, and there are important congressional, state and local races on the ballot, too.

It ought to be easy to vote. It ought to be safe to vote.

These new figures prove that the people agree.

This is a huge change in democracy as it’s practiced in Iowa. People are worried about voting in traditional polling places, and they’re perfectly fine with casting their ballots by mail. They prefer it.

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