The contest for president comes down to a handful of swing states, then down to hotly contested Iowa, then down to a handful of tight counties.
And America waits. For a week.
“They keep talking about a 2,000-vote margin for the presidential race across the state,” said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. “Linn County could have 3,000 ballots out.”
“Don’t say that,” said Chad Olsen, spokesman for Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz.
With a significant share of absentee ballots still unreturned in a year that saw a high volume of requests for them, it remains at least a mathematical possibility.
“That troubles me, that that margin of difference could be in those absentee ballots that never came back,” Miller told county supervisors Wednesday.
Through Tuesday, about 130,000 of 660,000 requested absentee ballots statewide remained out, Olsen said. In Linn County, Miller said he’s received 37,518 of 47,538 absentee ballots, or 79 percent of those mailed to voters since late September.
Johnson County voters had returned 84 percent of 39,738 absentee ballots requested by Wednesday afternoon. Benton County reported 83 percent returned of 4,310 requested, Jones County 83 percent of 3,894, and Dubuque County 76 percent of 24,770.
“This gap is significant,” Miller said. “We could have 3,000 ballots in Linn County that never come back.”
Linn County’s unreturned ballots would be more than the winning margins in two supervisors’ races and a state House race in 2008, when Barack Obama won Iowa by 140,732, or 9.3 percent of just over 1.5 million votes cast.
With polls showing the presidential race in Iowa within a few points or less, provisional ballots could make the difference. They’re not counted until the official canvass Nov. 13.
Voters who requested absentee ballots but decide to vote in person will cast provisional ballots, used to record a vote when there are questions about a voter’s eligibility.
A provisional ballot becomes official and is counted when those questions are answered.
The county elections board starts counting provisional ballots two days after the election. The board’s volunteers also compare provisional voters against the absentee ballot list. That will eliminate some unreturned absentees from the pool of uncounted ballots, but ballots mailed by 5 p.m. Monday have until noon canvassing day to arrive at auditors’ offices.
To ensure their absentee ballots are counted, voters need to make sure they’re postmarked. Absentee ballots are business mail, which doesn’t receive a date stamp, so voters should request a hand-stamped envelope, Olsen and Miller said.
“There’s no guarantee the post office is going to stamp that envelope, and if you’re returning it Friday or later you better stand there and ask” for a hand cancellation, Olsen said.
Miller said his office has received about 1,000 absentee ballots a day lately. Olsen said returns are running about 30,000 a day statewide.
But “we never hit 100 percent (returned ballots),” Olsen said. “There’s always a gap.”
Unreturned absentees usually run 7 to 10 percent once returns are official, Olsen said – enough to leave a losing candidate wondering what might have been.