Courier Staff Writer
While Democrats did not win every seat in Wapello County’s election Tuesday, absentee votes for Democrats nearly doubled those for Republicans.
“That was something the Democrats locally and nationally focused on,” said Wapello County Supervisor Steve Siegel. “We have for several years, but this year I think it was more methodical, a comprehensive effort that really paid off.
“I don’t think the Republicans pushed it as long or as hard as the Democrats did.”
In the presidential election in the county, President Barack Obama won 4,302 absentee votes, versus 2,381 for Mitt Romney.
The county also saw 2,249 Democratic straight-party absentee ballots vs. 787 Republican straight-party absentee ballots.
Four other area races followed suit in terms of absentee voting:
• U.S. Congressional District 2: Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City: 4,167; John Archer, R-Bettendorf: 2,255
• Senate District 40: Tim Tripp, D-Pella: 520; Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa: 383
• House District 80: Joe Judge, D-Albia: 560; Larry Sheets, R-Moulton: 357
• House District 81: Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa: 3,860; Blake Smith, R-Ottumwa: 1,857
Wapello County Auditor Kelly Spurgeon said absentee voting is up from the 2008 election. In 2008, more than 6,100 absentee ballots were cast, but this year, more than 6,800 in the county voted absentee.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” Spurgeon said. “We have a lot of people who wanted to absentee vote because they didn’t want to stand in line on Election Day. But then unfortunately they had to stand in line when they came to our office to [early] vote.”
In President Barack Obama’s victory speech Tuesday night, he said, “I want to thank every American who participated in this election ... whether you voted for the very first time ... or waited in line for a very long time ... by the way, we have to fix that.”
“I don’t know exactly what he means, but Iowa ought to give the Oregon system a close look,” Siegel said.
In Oregon, all elections are conducted by mail. According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s website, voters who are registered by the 21st day before an election are mailed a ballot to vote and return by Election Day.
“Vote-by-mail” was approved on a limited basis by the Oregon Legislature in 1981. It became a permanent feature of some elections in 1987 and on Nov. 7, 2000, all elections became vote-by-mail after it was adopted by nearly 70 percent of voters in 1998.
“They don’t have Election Day, per se, so it actually saves money, it increases turnout and people avoid long lines,” Siegel said. “What’s not to like?”
Spurgeon said a study was done of Oregon’s absentee voting system and brought back to the Iowa Legislature several years ago.
“They weren’t in favor of it because they had just spent millions of dollars on voting equipment,” Spurgeon said.
Auditor offices across the state began using the equipment in 2006.
“We have to do some comparisons,” Spurgeon said, before any switch can be made. “What we spend on election workers, on postage. We put stamps on absentee ballots ahead of time, but we get a lot of return envelopes back to us hand-delivered. And we wouldn’t have to pay for programming for the machines we take out. But it would be a lot of work for us because we would be mailing everybody a ballot.”
While Siegel said he, along with many Americans, “have a certain nostalgia about Election Day,” absentee voting is becoming more and more popular. In fact, Siegel said he has voted absentee in the last few elections.
“I miss the Election Day thing, but I have my day free and I’m confident that my vote is in, there’s no last-minute unexpected events to keep me from voting,” he said.
One positive is Spurgeon would know how many ballots to order ahead of time.
“When we do it for Election Day, we order so many ballots for how many voted in the previous election,” she said. “We have an excess because we don’t know who’s going to vote and who doesn’t. It would maybe save on expenses of printing.”
Wapello County doles out nearly $70,000 every election.
Of that, $10,000 goes to election workers, $15,000 to absentee ballot envelopes, $15,000 to ballots, $17,000 on equipment, $4,000 on registration services and $6,000 on postage.
“In Oregon, they don’t have poll workers to pay,” Siegel said. “We also have to pay rent to the various churches and schools where we have polling places.”
Wapello County GOP chairwoman Trudy Caviness said part of the reason more absentee votes went to Democrats is simply because there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county.
According to the auditor’s office, 43 percent of registered voters in the county are Democrat, 24 percent are Republican and 33 percent are either non-party, libertarian or green.
“[Wapello County] had requested 7,500 absentees, which obviously were not all returned by Monday,” Caviness said. “Of that number, we had a little over 1,700 Republican requests, a little over 4,100 Democrat requests and 1,600 no party requests.”
During election season, Caviness said her party tries to get out and talk to those who have either voted absentee in the past or who they believe won’t make it to the polls.
“The number of Republicans in the county is lower, obviously, than Democrats,” she said. “And Democrats seem to work harder to get people out early to vote on absentees than the Republicans do.”
While initial reports Tuesday night showed Romney winning the county, once absentee numbers came in, it was clear the race would go to Obama. Caviness said the same thing happened four years ago. John McCain was winning the race until absentee votes came in.
“So the absentee process is maybe a different philosophy — for lack of a better word — in how campaigns run their campaigns,” Caviness said. “I am not opposed to pushing early voting. I think it kind of takes the excuse that ‘I didn’t have time to vote’ away from people. But in my opinion, there is the potential of more problems with fraud in [absentee] voting than voting at the polls.”