Iowa Logs Record Number of Absentee Ballot Requests Ahead of June Primary

May 14, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

With the Iowa primaries less than three weeks away, an unprecedented number of voters have applied to vote by mail in the state’s June 2 election.

As of Tuesday, 356,315 voters had requested an absentee ballot, with 96,311 ballots already sent in, according to data from Iowa’s Secretary of State.

That’s a nearly twenty-fold increase compared to the number of absentee ballots requested at roughly the same point before Iowa’s 2018 midterm primaries. 

The surge in requests comes as concerns mount that the pandemic could make in-person voting a risky affair this year. To facilitate voting, the office of the Secretary of State announced in March that it would send absentee ballot request forms with prepaid postage to every registered voter in Iowa.

The move could dramatically boost voter turnout, expanding Iowa’s electorate in ways that could make some races harder to predict.

Iowa’s Senate election is already looking like a close race, with incumbent Joni Ernst and her likely Democratic opponent Theresa Greenfield virtually tied in recent polling.

A survey released earlier this month by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shows that Ernst’s early lead in the race has nearly disappeared. She now stands just one point ahead of Greenfield, down from a six-point lead in a PPP poll conducted this winter.

Ernst’s popularity may have taken a hit from her response to the COVID-19 crisis. The PPP poll found that just 37% of voters approve of the job she’s been doing, a significant decrease from earlier numbers.

Democrats are still looking at an uphill battle to win a Senate seat in Iowa. Ernst raised roughly $2.7 million in the first quarter of 2020, while Greenfield pulled in around $2.2 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Ernst’s campaign is also ahead when it comes to cash-on-hand with a $2.7 million advantage on Greenfield.

Tim Hagle, a professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, says that while the increase in absentee ballot requests this year is impressive, there’s no guarantee that voters will actually send all those ballots back. “You’re going to have a lot of people who don’t return those ballots for one reason or another,” he says.

Early voting and absentee voting are common practice in Iowa. In 2016, more than 40% of voters in the state’s general election voted absentee. Individual counties in Iowa often open “satellite” absentee booths in convenient places like college dorm rooms and hospitals as a way to encourage voting.

But many satellite absentee stations could be closed this year due to the pandemic, Hagle says. “Simply the fact that those opportunities are more limited means that more people than usual are going to be taking advantage of some sort of mail-in.”

While some states have expressed concerns that easing restrictions on vote-by-mail could lead to election fraud, the majority of Iowa voters seem to be comfortable with the practice. In the PPP poll, 70% of respondents said they think registered voters should be mailed absentee ballots so they can vote from home, while only 22% opposed the measure.

In December, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate released data showing that a record number of Iowans were registered to vote in the 2020 election. 

Voters with no party affiliation are currently the state’s largest electorate group with more than 700,000 persons. Meanwhile, the number of registered Democrats and Republicans is usually roughly the same, hovering around 600,000 people in each party. As Hagle puts it, Democrats and Republicans “sort of cancel each other out.”

Unanticipated factors like the coronavirus could make it difficult to predict the outcome of Iowa’s election this year, Hagle says, but unaffiliated voters will surely play an important role.

That could bode well for Ernst, he says, because unaffiliated voters are typically less politically engaged, and usually favor incumbents. “Once somebody gets established in Iowa, we do by-and-large tend to like the incumbents, and I think a lot of that has to do with no-party voters.”

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