Doug Melvold


Sentinel-Press Columnist

Without question, I’m old school. My analog watch doesn’t count my steps, keep track of my sleep cycles or warn me I’d better not eat that third chocolate chip cookie. I haven’t yet graduated to a vehicle with a center “vehicle information” screen and I keep a supply of paper maps in the glove box. We still have a landline phone and we’re still listed in the ever-thinner phone book.

I love baseball but I like it the way it used to be played, without the designated hitter, without parades of relief pitchers coming in to face one or two batters, without some player salaries of an amount deserved only if the recipient can also cure cancer, world hunger and poverty, and without games that last longer than the war in Afghanistan.

While Mary acquired her first smartphone this spring, I’m still very satisfied with the basic model I’ve had for 10 years or longer, along with the more basic monthly bill. I can resist constantly checking the weather or messages or whatever it is that smartphone users seem to be always searching for.

Until this spring, I also have resisted the growing trend to cast my ballot before Election Day finally arrives.

Once upon a time, Election Day was almost a national holiday. Everybody, it seemed, or at least 99.5 percent of those voting, would go to the polls on Election Day. Absentee voting was just that – you did it only if you were going to be away from home all day that day. It was almost like you needed a signed doctor’s excuse to vote absentee.

That has all changed in recent years as “absentee voting” has morphed into increasingly larger numbers of “early voting.” The political parties promote it as a way to make sure their faithful cast a ballot.

I understand the strategy, but still, in my 52 years of voting, I had never cast an absentee or early ballot until this year, other than perhaps during my final year away at college or the following two years in the Army. And I can think of only one election, a school board election years ago in which there was no contested race, in which I haven’t voted since I became eligible at 21. (I was already 24 when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.) Likewise, Mary also has preferred to wait to vote in person on the day.

I just like the little ritual of visiting the polls on Election Day. I like greeting the poll workers, for whom it’s a long day, and other voters coming and going, marking and feeding the ballot into the machine and walking out with an “I voted” sticker. This wonderful right we enjoy to choose our leaders takes less time than gassing up the car and it’s as much of a social errand as anything.

Like everything else this year, it seems, the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Even before we saw images of people literally risking their lives and waiting for hours in endless lines waiting to vote, Mary and I had decided that for Iowa’s primary election on June 2, we would vote by mail – the first time for both of us. It couldn’t have been more convenient.

We had received ballot-request forms in the mail. We filled them out, returned them to county Auditor Alisa Smith’s office and received our ballots a few days later. We followed the simple instructions, marked our choices and returned them in the Courthouse drop box at the Second Street entrance.

As the coronavirus is sure to still be with us this fall, we’ll do the same for the Nov. 3 general election. Without a doubt, we’ll be among a large majority of those who will vote early.

Having followed Jackson County elections all my life and covered them for 35 years, I’ve watched the growth of early voting. If you’ve made up your mind who you’re going to vote for, why wait to vote? I suppose there could be some scandalous revelation or the death of a candidate (it has happened) on the eve of the election that would cause one to change one’s vote at the last minute.

Particularly when the worst viral outbreak in the last century is raging seems to be to be a good time to encourage early voting by mail and to make it as convenient as possible while keeping it safe and secure.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate thought so, too. So much so, he mailed an absentee ballot request form (not a ballot) to every registered voter in the state before the June primary election. That doubtless contributed to the record turnout. Jackson County recorded a record turnout of 5,193 voters, or 35.4 percent of those registered, far higher than any previous primary. Of that number, some 3,804 voted absentee and 1,389 ventured out to the polls on Election Day. Nearly three voters voted early for every one who visited his or her polling place.

Without question, that pattern will be repeated in November, with even higher numbers. It’s the safe thing to do.

“I anticipate a very high absentee turnout,” Jackson County Auditor Alisa Smith told me last week. “For the primary, we sent out a little over 4,200 absentee ballots and we counted a little over 3,800 that came back. I would anticipate we’ll do way more than that in November.”

Pate’s action sending out ballot request forms was done in the interest of health and safety at a time when people are asked to stay home as much as possible. Trying to make voting easier for Iowans during a pandemic? Sounds like a good idea to me.

Many state legislators, however, weren’t so sure. Apparently, Republicans in the Legislature didn’t want to make it convenient for so many Iowans to participate in democracy. Shortly after the primary, state Sen. Roby Smith of Davenport attached an amendment to a non-controversial two-page bill about county seals. The bill would take away from the secretary of state the authority to mail absentee ballot request forms to all eligible voters in the future. Instead, the measure would require the secretary of state to ask permission of the bipartisan Legislative Council, made up of politicians and currently controlled by Republicans.

The bill passed in the Legislature by party-line votes and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. About a week later, Pate asked the Legislative Council for permission to mail the absentee ballot request forms to all Iowans in time for the Nov. 3 general election. The Legislative Council approved the request.

I’m not sure what problem Republican legislators were trying to solve by making Pate needlessly jump through another hoop and now politicizing the mailing of absentee-ballot request forms. Guess I always thought Republicans were for less red tape and government control.

It all would have been nothing more than an exercise in bureaucratic sniping, except when the legislature snatched away from the secretary of state the power to act on his own, nothing prevented individual county auditors from doing so for their own constituencies.

Several county auditors, including those of some of Iowa’s larger counties, started looking into sending out their own ballot requests. Some counties made financial commitments and I understand some still plan to mail out ballot request forms of their own, which now will duplicate the state’s effort. Alisa said she thought Clinton County had spent $16,000 to mail out ballot requests and the Linn County auditor was getting ready to mail theirs.

Smith had looked into the possibility herself for Jackson County. She said it would have cost about $4,700. After Pate got permission to mail the forms, Smith stopped the process saving the expense.

“If (Pate) hadn’t gotten his request approved, I would have done it,” she said.

Pate, an elected official and a Republican, by the way, should be trusted to make good judgments, instead of being subject to a hasty power grab by the Legislature for using some common-sense initiative. The secretary of state is an elected official. If the voters don’t like what he or she is doing, he or she can be voted out of office.

Any voter can request an absentee ballot by just writing out a request and signing it. A form makes it easier and assures that the auditor’s office will have all the necessary information. Alisa noted that in addition to the secretary of state, other organizations, including both political parties and advocacy groups such as AARP, also will be sending out request forms.

    “And then somebody out campaigning will come to your door and you can’t get rid of them, so you’ll sign that absentee ballot request to get rid of them,” Smith noted. She said it’s not unusual for her office to receive two or more absentee ballot requests from the same voter. Her office has fail-safe checks to make sure early voters can’t vote often.

“I don’t think they’re trying to get 10 ballots mailed to them; they just want to be sure they get one,” she said.

Smith said her office, as of Thursday, Oct. 23, already had received about 100 absentee ballot requests. She will start sending out absentee ballots on Oct. 5, the first day for early voting for Iowans. She urged voters with questions to call her office at 652-3144.

When Election Day approaches, a veteran team will convene on Monday, Nov. 2, the day before the election to begin processing absentee ballots. The absentee ballots will be identical to the ones that will be voted at the polls on Election Day. The absentee team doesn’t tally the votes by hand; they feed the ballots into an electronic scanner just as is done at Jackson County’s 16 polling places. And like a bank teller who has to balance his or her figures at the end of the day, the team doesn’t go home until every ballot has been accounted for. The team will come in on Election Day to finish the job by the time polls close.

After seeing allegations of voter fraud and election snafus, such as the 2000 presidential election and predictions that it could be weeks before the expected mountains of absentee ballots in other states are counted, I have always thought of Jackson County as a model for how to administer elections.

Whether our county auditor and elections commissioner in recent years has been T. M. “Mike” Cotton, M. Joell Deppe, Brian Moore or Alisa, they and their dedicated election workers have conducted elections with the utmost integrity, fairness and transparency and with great service to the voters. It’s a mark of their work that almost always, there is scarcely a change of even one vote from the unofficial results reported on election night to the official canvass.

As Alisa said, “Voting in Jackson County is very safe. And yes, your vote does count.”