September 1, 2014

“Signature verification” proposed for absentee ballots in Iowa

Iowa’s secretary of state will ask lawmakers to consider requiring a new way of checking the identity of Iowans who cast their votes early, before Election Day.

“We had almost 46 percent of the state vote early, vote absentee,” Secretary of State Matt Schultz says, “so we’re going to be discussing signature verification as something that we should be doing, just like Oregon and Washington, with absentee ballots.”

If signature verification were required in Iowa, a machine would “read” the voter’s signature that is on the envelope that contains the absentee ballot to see if that signature matches the one on file with the voter’s registration.

“And if they don’t, then there’s a process that they go through in contacting the voter — that’s what Washington and Oregon do — and so we’re going to be looking at something similar,” Schultz says. “When we have almost half of our state voting that way, we need to be thinking in those terms.”

To vote by mail in Iowa, voters must ask for an absentee ballot, fill it out, put it in an envelope, then seal and sign that envelope before putting it in a second envelope and dropping it in the mail. Schultz, who was elected secretary of state in 2010, has been an advocate of requiring voters to show voter I.D. at the polls on Election Day.

“Obviously, voter I.D. doesn’t work with absentee ballots, so we need to be looking at ways that Oregon and Washington currently use to try to keep their vote secure,” Schultz says, “so we’re looking at doing the same thing.”

In 1998, voters in Oregon passed an initiative requiring all elections in that state to be conducted by mail. Some counties in neighboring Washington state had been conducting vote-by-mail elections since 1987, but it went into effect statewide in 2011.

There are investigations underway of alleged 2012 absentee ballot abuses in two counties here in Iowa — Floyd County in north central Iowa and Muscatine County in eastern Iowa — but neither investigation is complete. Republicans like Schultz have supported “voter I.D.” laws to curb fraud, while Democrats generally dismiss the idea there is widespread voter fraud and argue the I.D. requirement disenfranchises some voters.

In addition to mailing in an absentee ballot, Iowa law allows voters to cast an absentee ballot in person at satellite voting stations and at their county auditor’s office, starting 40 days before Election Day.