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November 2, 2012

Absentee voting ‘explodes’ this year

Numbers already surpassing 2008 absentee totals

OTTUMWA — Advertisements, commercials and campaigns have barraged voters with messages to vote early this fall, and area county auditors are feeling the pressure.

“It’s just exploded,” said Jefferson County Auditor Scott Reneker. “More and more have been voting absentee in every election cycle.”

Reneker said voting has changed dramatically over the last 25 years.

“Twenty to 25 years ago in a presidential general election, you’d see in Jefferson County 100 to 200 — at most — absentee voters voting,” he said.

This year, Jefferson County has seen nearly 4,400 absentee votes so far, already surpassing the total number of absentee voters, 4,100, in the 2008 election.

The trend is similar in other area counties, with Wapello County seeing 6,731 absentee voters so far (compared to a total of 6,100 absentee votes in 2008) and Davis County seeing 1,330 absentee votes so far (compared to a total of 1,139 absentee votes in 2008).

“Some of our biggest days are coming, especially Monday, the day before the election,” Reneker said. “In the past, there have been a couple hundred just on that day alone.”

Wapello County Auditor Kelly Spurgeon said this election has put even more pressure on early voting.

“It seems like people are voting absentee this year more so with the presidential election,” she said. “In the federal election in 2014, I don’t think we’ll see near as many absentees.”

Davis County Auditor Linda Humphrey said since both parties have been hammering the issue of early voting, it seems to be “the thing to do this year.

“It’s like having two elections, because we’re trying to prepare for Election Day,  but at the counter and in the mail, we’re getting tons every day we have to do,” she said. “They wanted people to go vote before they changed their mind.”

Another phenomenon putting more work on county auditors’ plates is lengthening voter lists, Reneker said.

After the National Voter Registration Act took effect in 1995, auditors nationwide could no longer purge non-active voters, or “those who hadn’t voted in four years’ time” from their lists, Reneker said.

“They used to be automatically removed from the list and then need to re-register, so it kept everyone’s lists more current,” he said. “So everyone’s lists are growing.”

In a county like Jefferson County with 12,700 registered voters, Reneker estimates 500 to 1,000 of those are no longer eligible to vote.

“People pick up and move to a different area, state, whatever, and we don’t know it,” he said. “If they don’t notify us, we don’t have a method to remove their name from the list.”

Reneker agreed that this year’s election has created a buzz about early voting.

“Every time you go home, there’s solicitations in your mailbox to vote absentee,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good thing, no. I think the integrity of the election is impacted adversely.”

He said with inaccurate lists, it makes absentee voting more susceptible to improper handling, “even the coercion of a spouse in some instances.”

“When you go on Election Day, you have the privacy of a voting booth, and that’s different in some homes,” he said. “It’s just more problematic.”

Despite frustrations from voters, Humphrey said it’s not the auditor’s offices who are sending out absentee ballot request forms — it’s the political parties. Voters assume the auditor’s office sends the forms because that’s where they have to be returned, Humphrey said.

“It seems like more people are interested in doing it, so we’ve been explaining things a lot more because they want to know the facts,” Humphrey said. “They’re asking us questions like how they’re counted on Election Day. We even had somebody tell us they thought their absentee ballot wouldn’t be counted at all if the election wasn’t close.

“It’s good that people are making themselves educated on the process.”

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