SIOUX CITY -- As the Iowa Legislature considers bills that could change details on how mailed ballots are counted, Woodbury County Auditor Pat Gill on Thursday said an option has worked well in seven counties, including Woodbury County, and should be adopted statewide.
The issue is being closely watched because which mailed ballots were counted in a November legislative seat stirred much controversy, resulting in the first contested election to go before the Legislature in 27 years.
Gill said the confounding issue is the postal service no longer cancels the Business Reply category of mail, which is used by most auditors for ballots, so "no postmarks have plagued us for years."
In the House District 55 race in November, 33 ballots arrived after election day with no postmark, but it was noticed that a barcode was placed on the envelopes by the postal service.
The mailed absentee ballots from Winnishiek County were confirmed by a U.S. Postal Service scan of a barcode on the envelopes as having been sent to election officials on time. Majority party House Republicans asserted those barcodes are not allowed to validate ballots under current state law, and ultimately voted to reject 29 Winnishiek County ballots on Jan. 28.
Incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Bergan was declared the District 55 winner by nine votes.
Gill said the answer is to require all counties auditors in future elections to use the technology of a specific code, called intelligent mail barcode, or IMB, on each mailed ballot return envelope. Private mailing businesses used by some auditors have a piece of equipment that prints a unique intelligent mail barcode on each return envelope for mailed ballots, which enables tracking by the U.S. postal service.
Realizing mail ballots often are no longer postmarked, Gill said legislators updated the law in 2016 to allow use of IMB to authenticate ballot timeliness if a postmark is missing.
He said Woodbury County was among the pilot counties, a list that grew to include Benton, Dubuque, Cerro Gordo, Jones, Clinton and Marshall counties, and he is a big supporter of broadening it statewide by legislative action.
"(That) technology allows us now to count ballots that were previously rejected through no fault of voters, who believed they were complying with the law," Gill said.
"I am very proud of the effort we made to implement this process. It has proven to be a very accurate tool make sure we are rightfully and lawfully counting and rejecting ballots. "
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said Iowa Code is clear on the subject.
"Absentee ballots that arrive after election day and do not contain postmarks, nor a county-specific Intelligent Mail Barcode (IMb), are not eligible to be counted," Pate said in December.
There are competing bills being considered.
The Iowa House has forwarded a bill, House File 692, and the Senate is considering the measure to make it mandatory for county auditors to use IMB on each return envelope for mailed ballots. Gill prefers that bill, and was in the Legislature on Thursday morning to advocate for it as it moved out of a Senate subcommittee.
During the subcommittee discussions, a representative of the Iowa Association of County Auditors said auditors across the state differ on whether a bar code law or hard deadline is a more appropriate solution.
Additionally, another bill has a piece that would change the date by which absentee ballots would have arrive to be counted.
The so-called sure-count deadline proposal requires all absentee ballots be received before the polls close on Election Day, which is part of Senate File 575. The Hancock County Board of Supervisors are among the entities who have urged legislators to enact that deadline.
A letter from the Hancock County supervisors in February said, “The saga of the 2018 House District 55 election is proof that change is needed to prevent contest of election results based on unreliable marks on an absentee ballot envelope. Delivery of the envelope by the day of election should be the only standard.”
SF575 passed out of the Senate State Government Committee on March 11 and could be debated on the Senate floor. Gill said it is considered an omnibus elections bill with lots of elements, and said the sure-count date isn't the best solution.
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