By The Gazette Editorial Board
Iowans set a record for voter turnout in the Nov. 6 election. The percentage of registered voters casting ballots — 72 percent — was the highest in 20 years, though just above the 71 percent of 2004 and 2008.
More noteworthy was the 46 percent of ballots cast early or by absentee. That figure is a record and reflects a growing trend in our state and many others. If more early and absentee voting leads to higher voter participation, that’s good.
Iowa’s Secretary of State Matt Schultz also wants to head off potential problems with absentee ballots by proposing a signature verification system. We think that’s worth exploring.
Schultz, a Republican, has unsuccessfully pursued a voter ID law for Iowa and plans to try again in 2013. With the Senate’s majority Democrats likely still opposed, it’s better to focus on the absentee ballot issue.
Even with Schultz’s stepped-up investigations the past few months, there’s little evidence so far that voter fraud at the polls happens very often in Iowa. However, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller and other county auditors do see a need to verify signatures on absentee ballots as their use increases. He and colleagues are working on a plan to present to the Legislature.
Schultz wants lawmakers to consider legislation based on the Oregon and Washington systems, which use machines that read signatures on absentee ballot envelopes and verifies them against signatures on registration records.
All-mail voting is used in both of those states, and Oregon’s system, requiring ballots to be in hand by the end of voting day, is the best. Many critics predicted widespread fraud when the system was launched. But since 2000, 15 million ballots have been cast by mail in Oregon, with only nine convictions of voter fraud, according to election officials. The state’s security measures are extensive: each envelope has a unique bar code, every signature is verified, and cameras monitor the counting. Voters can check online to see if their ballot was counted. The system saves money — no poll sites to staff. And voter turnout has been above or near 80 percent in all presidential elections.
We doubt whether most Iowans want an all-mail voting system yet. But tightening our absentee ballot process to prevent future problems makes sense, as long as it doesn’t discourage voter turnout or greatly increase costs.
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