Iowa Study Finds No Postmark on Many Ballots

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Last week, I wrote about the problem of late-arriving mail ballots in California and the resulting efforts of some election officials and policymakers there to allow ballots with postmarks on or before Election Day to count if they are received in a reasonable timeframe.

But a study in Iowa from earlier this year (flagged by my friends on Pew’s elections team) found that not all ballots that are mailed before Election Day receive a postmark. The Des Moines Register has more:

Iowa voters, beware: You could be disenfranchised by an absent postmark on your absentee ballot.

Lawmakers and state elections officials are warning that a state law mandating postmarks on absentee ballots has caused the disqualification of dozens of potentially valid votes in recent elections, and could disqualify many more in high-profile statewide contests later this year …

The law at issue requires absentee ballots received after Election Day to be stamped with a postmark from the day before Election Day or earlier. Any ballot received after Election Day without a postmark is tossed out and not counted — even if the voter completed and mailed it on time.

But here’s the problem: the U.S. Postal Service often does not postmark the business reply mail envelopes in which voters return completed absentee ballots. That means a valid ballot may be disqualified due to the inaction of a post office employee, even if the voter did everything else right.

One very interesting aspect of the story is the role that a curious election official played in discovering the problem:

Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker has been researching the issue for months as the president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, both in his home county and statewide. His findings suggest dozens of potentially eligible ballots have been rejected in recent elections.

“It wasn’t really the voter’s fault that caused his or her ballot to be rejected,” Van Lancker said. “That disturbs me and others that I worked with on this.”

In 2011, Clinton County rejected one ballot in a school board election because it arrived after Election Day without a postmark. When Van Lancker probed the matter, he found just 15 of 111 absentee ballots cast in that election were postmarked. The vast majority of those were received before Election Day and counted, but would have been disqualified if they’d been delivered later.

Clinton County’s numbers inspired other election officials to do their own research in 2013, and their numbers were equally startling:

• In Polk County, 75 ballots received after Election Day in last year’s school board contest were rejected because they had no postmark. Just 17 were counted.

• In Scott County, just 25 out of 225 — one in nine — mailed absentee school-board ballots was postmarked, and 21 ballots received after Election Day were thrown out.

• Johnson County rejected nine school election ballots for lack of a postmark, and reported postmarks on just 18 out of 235 ballots received by mail.

• Pottawattamie County received 195 absentee ballots by mail in its 2013 school election and 235 ballots in its city elections. Not a single one was postmarked.

“Some counties had postmarks on 100 percent of returned ballots in school and city elections, but a lot of us did not,” Van Lancker said. “That’s a concern. There’s an inconsistency there that could disqualify ballots that should otherwise be counted.”

These ballots used to count, but no longer after a key rule was changed – not surprisingly, after a close election:

Although the state law requiring mailed absentee ballots to include a postmark has been in effect for years, the threat to eligible ballots arose in 2011 when an accompanying administrative rule was repealed.

Under that rule, election officials were allowed to open ballots received after Election Day without a postmark and check the date on the enclosed voter affidavit. If the document was signed and dated before Election Day, the vote was counted.

The rule was struck down, officials said, over concerns that voters could falsify the date on the affidavit to cast votes late — perhaps even after unofficial results had been tallied — and affect the outcome of a close election. Falsifying the date on a ballot affidavit is a felony.

Those concerns arose following the 2010 race for the southeast Iowa Senate district, where Republican Mark Chelgren defeated Democrat Keith Kreiman by just 10 votes.

Not surprisingly, Iowa’s outgoing Secretary of State – whose concerns about voter fraud are well-known – supports the rule:

Sarah Reisetter, the director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, said Secretary Matt Schultz understood the concern over possible disenfranchisement but supported the current law.

“It guards against a situation where somebody would bring a ballot into a small, local post office the day after an election and have that local postmaster deliver it and have that ballot eligible for counting,” she said.

Legislative efforts to fix the issue have stalled – including a proposal by election officials themselves to eliminate the postmark rule entirely:

Van Lancker and the county auditors have proposed a “sure-count deadline” requiring all absentee votes by mail to be received on or before Election Day. That would disqualify all votes received after Election Day, but give voters a clear deadline that wasn’t reliant on a postmark from the post office.

[Rep. Cindy] Winckler … proposed rewriting state law to codify the tossed-out rule — that is, allowing election officials to open ballots received after Election Day and count those with affidavits dated before Election Day.

A third idea — floated by state Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo — would allow officials to count votes-by-mail within a more limited window after Election Day regardless of whether they had a postmark. [NOTE: This is similar to proposed SB29 in California.]

Over several weeks of discussion, no consensus emerged among the options, said state Rep. Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights.

“It just kind of highlighted the fact that there isn’t a truly clean, consensus way to solve this problem, unfortunately,” Hagenow said of the competing proposals. “But I do believe a good-faith effort was made by all parties to try and find something.”

Now, lawmakers said, the discussion is likely done for the current legislative session.

Until the issue is resolved, election officials (like their counterparts elsewhere) will do what they can to ensure that voters get their ballots in on time (with an assist from the political process):

Recognizing the potential for valid votes to be disqualified, election officials added a “warning label” to absentee ballots in 2012 advising that “postmarks are not guaranteed” and imploring voters to return their ballots early …

In state and federal contests, political parties keep a sharp eye on absentee ballot requests, and hound voters until they’re returned, he said. That should help voters avoid disqualification.

“The minute that ballot gets to your house, you’re getting beat down by both parties to get that ballot in immediately,” Fitzgerald said. “The only way to get those phone calls to stop is to turn that ballot in.”

For its part, the Postal Service is unlikely to be of much help:

A [USPS] spokesman said last week that the only sure way to get mail postmarked is to put a stamp on it. Individual post offices may put a greater emphasis on postmarking ballots around Election Day, but a statewide effort was unlikely.

“If there’s an expectation that business reply mail is going to be postmarked consistently, that’s an unreasonable expectation because there’s no postage to be postmarked,” Postal Service spokesman Rich Watkins said.

While the outcome is still murky, I still tip my electiongeek cap (propeller beanie?) to Iowa officials for documenting the problem. This story – when added to California’s experience – suggests that issues surrounding mailed ballots are likely to continue and will require attention from policymakers and election officials alike.

Stay tuned.

1 Comment on "Iowa Study Finds No Postmark on Many Ballots"

  1. While there’s an inconsistency here that could disqualify ballots that should have been counted, I’m glad Iowa officials are looking at this problem.

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