The plight of the procrastinating voter
A troubling loophole in absentee voting laws has led to the disqualification of some ballots in local elections throughout the state, but it appears a viable solution is nowhere in sight for Iowa's lawmakers.
Last week, the Des Moines Registerran an eye-opening report about a law that potentially disenfranchises unknowing voters that wait until the last minute to mail their absentee ballots. Iowa Code currently stipulates that all votes received in the mail after the polls close must be stamped with a postmark dated the day before Election Day. The U.S. Postal service doesn't usually postmark business reply mail, which is exactly what absentee ballots are. This means a perfectly legitimate absentee vote could get tossed out even if the person mailing it met all the deadline requirements – if the ballot is received a day late with no postmark, it’s tough stuff for Mr. Voter.
The Register's article included some cringe-worthy statistics that certainly created a cause for alarm. Though little to no issues occurred during the 2012 presidential election, the same couldn't be said for local elections last fall. A handful of large counties all reported varying numbers of rejected ballots due to a lack of a postmark following Election Day in 2013: Polk County tossed out 58, Scott County discarded 21, and Johnson County snuffed nine. It might seem like small peanuts for the state's biggest counties, but a similar scenario in a place like Franklin County could potentially sway a close school board election or city council race. Turnout in those elections is already very low here, and throwing out a ballot because it lacks a postmark only shaves that margin even closer.
State lawmakers have suggested many remedies for the postmark problem. The list included creating a hard deadline for absentee ballots that would disqualify all votes received via mail after Election Day; rewriting state code and allowing election officials to open ballots received after Election Day to see if they were dated before the deadline; and altering the timeframe after Election Day in which votes could be counted, whether they were postmarked or not. Simply forcing the U.S.P.S. postmark business reply mail like absentee ballots isn't a possibility. The Postal Service isn't technically under the government's control, and it's certainly not under the Iowa Legislature's jurisdiction.
It appears our lawmakers are powerless to remedy the situation. If the Postal Service isn't required to postmark absentee ballots, it isn't going to. The Register noted a previous law was struck down in 2011 that allowed officials to open votes received after Election Day and check if they were dated and signed before the deadline. Fears over voters falsifying the date and mailing ballots after Election Day led to the repeal, which seems relatively justified. As previously mentioned, implementing it again would require recodification of the law, which makes its viability somewhat slim. Quite frankly, the situation is excruciatingly frustrating.
The Legislature isn't going to find a solution in 2014 – time is just simply running out. As the campaign intensifies and the November election inches closer, it seems there's really nothing else to do other than warn procrastinating absentee voters about the possibility of discarded votes. Once that ballot comes, citizens would be wise to fill it out and send it on its way immediately. It's unfortunate Iowa's esteemed election laws could be derailed by the lack of a simple postmark, but it's even more disheartening that a ballot could get tossed unbeknownst to the person who cast it.