Iowa shatters primary turnout record with mail-in ballots in unprecedented primary election amid COVID-19

As statewide measures were taken to ensure the health of voters in Tuesday’s primary election, Johnson County residents turned out to cast their ballots either by mail or at polling sites amid unconventional voting processes due to the novel coronavirus.


Jenna Galligan

Stickers on the floor encouraging social distancing are seen on the floor on Tuesday, June 2 in Iowa City West High School.

Katie Ann McCarver, News Editor

A record number of Iowans cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primaries after the Secretary of State’s Office mailed each active Iowa voter an absentee ballot-request form to encourage voting from home.

Statewide voter turnout was at 24.11 percent according to the Secretary of State website. Of more than 2.1 million registered voters, 522,207 cast their ballots — compared to around 290,000 in the 2018 primary election.

In Johnson County, Auditor Travis Weipert tweeted Tuesday evening that around 80 percent of votes in the county were submitted via absentee ballot. The county cast 22,235 absentee ballots,

Only voters who are registered as Democrats or Republicans are eligible to vote in the primary election. Around two-thirds of Iowa voters are registered with a political party.

In-person polling places in Iowa City — and across Iowa — looked different Tuesday than they have in previous years because of COVID-19 mitigation measures and social-distancing restrictions. Changes to the voting process included single-use pens, stickers indicating how voters could remain 6 feet apart, and the combination of as many as three precincts into one spot.

Poll workers were provided face masks, face shields, and gloves, said Johnson County Deputy Auditor of Elections Bogdana Velterean. Volunteers at the polls were also encouraged to wash their hands and were given floor decals to indicate proper social distances for voters. Additionally, there was hand sanitizer and single-use pens at each precinct, Velterean said.

“We reduced the number of polling sites from 57 to 46 so we still maintained a lot of polling places open, so that we don’t have lines and we can keep the 6-feet distance between voters and poll workers,” she said.

Although the county prepared for about 25 percent of typical turnout at the polls, Velterean said it anticipated less turnout. Voting by mail, however, was at a record high for Johnson County in this primary because of COVID-19 prevention, she said.

Precinct Election Official Lucas DeWitt disinfects a door handle on Tuesday, June 2 at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area. (Jenna Galligan)

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Iowa City seventh precinct Election Chairperson Shonda Monette said that in-person voting Tuesday was sparse enough there were hardly any lines of voters or concern of crowds at the polling site.

“I think for sure we should consider absentee voting in the future, going forward,” Monette said. “But still, people … appreciate the feel of coming in and voting in person.”

A May 19 press release from Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate’s office noted that he partnered with Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Iowa National Guard to deliver personal protective equipment to polling places in all 99 of the state’s counties prior to voting Tuesday.

“Protecting voters and poll workers while making sure every eligible Iowan is able to safely cast a ballot is our goal,” Pate said in the release. “ … We want Iowans who choose to vote in-person to know we’re taking precautions to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

More than $500,000 in additional funding from federal grants was provided to the counties to cover the costs of safety materials meant to mitigate COVID-19, according to the release.

Lucas Elementary School is seen free of voters mid-afternoon on Tuesday, June 2. (Jenna Galligan)

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Iowa City tenth precinct Election Chairperson Suzanne Micheau said voters seemed at her precinct to be doing their part to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as well, stating that the majority entered wearing masks and left having sanitized their hands.

Due to the high number of registered voters who turned their ballot in by mail, Micheau said it was a slow day at the polls — which she considered fortunate amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to see everyone vote absentee for the general election, just to keep people safe health-wise,” Micheau said.

Iowa City resident Sara Haroun said she felt safe at the polls in regard to COVID-19 and adhesion to social-distancing guidelines.

Haroun said she chose to come to the precinct in-person and vote because, as an American citizen and immigrant from Sudan, it’s important she take the chance and cast her vote so she can choose whatever path will bring justice. This is a moment in history that’s really important for her, black people, and all people of color, Haroun said.

“All this pressure on us this day, and I don’t feel hopeless or helpless because if I have a right to vote — I can [make] change,” she said. “ … We’re going to fight. We’re going to fight until the last moment.”