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Elections and politics amid the coronavirus

Union file photo

While there have been no concrete changes to elections so far, local county auditors anticipate a large emphasis on absentee voting for the upcoming election.
Union file photo While there have been no concrete changes to elections so far, local county auditors anticipate a large emphasis on absentee voting for the upcoming election.
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As the nation continues to face the growing COVID-19 pandemic, local southeast Iowa auditors and Democratic Party chairs are also attempting to understand how the virus will affect elections and races moving forward.

The Iowa Democratic Party announced on March 13 its intention to postpone county conventions. Even with the postponement, the IDP stated district and state conventions are still anticipated to take place in late-April and June.

“At this point, given the developing situation, we don’t know,” Jeff Fager, Henry County Democratic Party Chair, said.

Fager noted this sort of disruption by an illness in the nation’s political process “is unprecedented.” County chairs have had conference calls to discuss potential alternatives, ranging from simply rescheduling the conventions to holding a virtual one instead.

“The Iowa Democratic Party is conferring with the legal team and the Democratic National Convention on rules and what can and may not be able to do. We’re waiting to hear back,” Fager added. Should the party move toward a virtual convention, the party chair said cyber security and maintaining the integrity of the convention process will be of the utmost concern.

With other states postponing primaries, Fager added the DNC may have to consider the fact that the national contention “may be in jeopardy,” especially in light of the fact the entire country may eventually need to enter a more serious lockdown in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Beyond the conventions, Fager notes the virus has also altered the traditional campaign path.

“The traditional campaign is to get out, knock on doors, shake hands with zillions of people, which is going to be suspended for some amount of time. Rallies and gatherings booth energy and excitement. It’s harder to get people excited with a flier they receive in the mail,” Fager pointed out.

While the pandemic has disrupted campaigns, Fager has noticed it has also pushed candidates toward a more digital-based strategy, which could be a path utilized more frequently to engage people in the political process in future elections.

Outside of conventions and campaigns, Fager also said he’s also interested to see how the virus may affect turnout and general concern over politics in general.

“We’re all so consumed by the pandemic, it’s hard to get our minds around an election. It could turn out to be a grand experiment and we will see what happens. I’d be interested to see how the virus affects turnout,” Fager added.

Washington County Auditor Dan Widmer said he anticipates there will be a major emphasis put on absentee voting moving forward. In Washington, about a third of registered voters, approximately 5,000, were already voting by mail in the last two presidential elections.

Even with an emphasis on absentee voting, Widmer anticipates there may still be some polling places open in June for the upcoming primaries.

“That’s still to be determined, we’re waiting to hear from the Secretary of State’s office,” Widmer said. The auditor explained there may potentially be a change in the number of polling locations, with one polling place to cover the entire county.

“We still need to allow people to come in and vote in person, but there’s going to be a real emphasis on absentee voting,” Widmer said.

To prepare for the push toward absentee voting, Widner and his office are talking about how to get the word out to voters. To vote absentee, voters must fill out an absentee ballot request, which cannot be faxed or emailed to the office. The forms can be found online or can be mailed to a voter if requested. The voter must turn in the form either through mail or by dropping it off at the county courthouse.

“They can turn it in any time, we won’t start sending out ballots until May 4. The absentee ballot form must be received by 5 p.m. on May 22,” Widmer explained.

Like Fager, Widmer is also interested to see how turnout may be affected by the virus. Widmer said there are ways the changes could lead to either an increase or decrease in turnout.

“It’ll be really interesting to see what impact it has. It could be more convenient for people, maybe some people won’t bother. With concerns around the coronavirus, people may not want to come on Election Day to vote — there’s lots of factors,” Widmer said.

Shelly Barber, Henry County’s auditor, said she also recommends voters request ballots to be mailed to their home. However Barber’s greatest concern is finding poll workers and making sure voting happens in an environment that follows the guidelines to ensure public health and safety during the virus.

“Most of my precinct workers are in their 70s and 80s. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get people to work. In my precinct with the wards for Mt. Pleasant, I have 12 workers, which is already over the 10 person limit,” Barber said. The auditor said, the number of workers in the polling location may increase to include workers dedicated to sanitizing and wiping the voting areas down.

Barber added she hasn’t gotten many directives from the Secretary of State.

“As far as we know, we’re rolling on schedule. We will be preparing ballots when we get all of the [candidacy] papers turned in by the 25th,” Barber said.

On Monday, Secretary of State Paul Pate, issued emergency election directives. The directive extends the first day voters can mail absentee ballots from 29 to 40 days. Voters can begin to mail in ballots on April 23.

Pate is encouraging Iowans to cast ballots by mail, according to the news release from his office.

The directive also states acceptable forms of identification that expired in 2020 will be accepted at polling locations during the primary election. No changes have been made to the primary date, which will remain June 2.

“The safety of voters takes precedence, and by encouraging Iowans to vote absentee, we can reduce the risk of community spread of COVID-19,” Secretary Pate said, “We still plan on having polls open on June 2 for voters who prefer to cast ballots in-person, but this effort will help reduce the risk of infecting others.”