Absentee and early voting was supposed to be the new normal when it comes to important elections.
Maybe not, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller began to wonder on Wednesday.
Miller said a lower-than-expected number of people to date have requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 5 city elections in Linn County and an unexpectedly low number have returned them or have come into the Auditor’s Office to vote early.
At the end of the workday Wednesday and with the Nov. 5 election less than three weeks away, only 588 Linn County voters had requested absentee ballots and only 287 had returned them or voted early at Miller’s office on the second floor of the county’s Public Service Center, 935 Second St. SW.
By way of comparison, 1,703 voters — six times the current number — cast absentee ballots or voted early in city elections in the county in 2009.
In 2009, the city of Cedar Rapids had a competitive mayoral race between Ron Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, and Brian Fagan, then the City Council’s mayor pro tem, a race Corbett won by a sizable margin.
But this year, Miller said the five cities who vote as a block on tax issues — Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Fairfax — are voting to extend the 1-percent local-option sales tax, and at the same time, Cedar Rapids and Marion both have contested City Council races.
“Where’s the interest in the election? … I don’t know what’s going on,” Miller asked. “You got plenty of stories in there,” he said of candidates on the ballot and the sales-tax question.
Comparisons with past local elections are only so instructive because different elections have different issues or may have all or different parts of Linn County voting at the time.
Only voters in cities in Linn County are voting on Nov. 5, not those in unincorporated Linn County.
In March 2013, voters countywide voted to allow casino gaming in the county after a campaign fueled with plenty of advertising from interests on both sides of the issue. In the vote, 19,536 people voted by absentee ballot of voted early from a total vote of 60,491, a 40-percent turnout.
Miller said he had been expecting a 20 to 25 percent turnout of eligible voters on Nov. 5, but he said now he’s not sure.
In the March 2012 special election on the sales-tax question in the Cedar Rapids metro block of cities, Walford and unincorporated Linn County, 3,587 people cast absentee ballots or voted early — or 13 times the number that so far have cast absentee ballots or voted early in the upcoming Nov. 5 election.
Miller said individual candidates often drive absentee voting.
He noted that the little-noticed school race for a spot on the Kirkwood Community College board managed to generate 653 absentee votes because of the focus of candidates John Swanson and Kevin King.
At the close of business Wednesday at the Auditor’s Office, the most absentee ballots for the Nov. 5 election — 167 — had been requested from Cedar Rapids council District 1, where two-term incumbent Kris Gulick is being challenged by Ajai Dittmar and Clark Rieke.
Gulick on Wednesday said he is not doing anything differently than he did in 2009 or 2005 to get out the early vote. He said he has targeted some constituents for absentee ballots, but he said District 1 typically has a high voter turnout, early voting or not.
Meanwhile, Rieke on Wednesday chuckled when asked about absentee voting. He wasn’t sure he wanted to say, then he acknowledged that absentee ballots were part of his campaign effort.
Dittmar said she wasn’t concentrating on getting out early voters.
Elsewhere in Cedar Rapids, 98 absentee ballots had been requested from District 2, 72 from District 4, 64 from District 3 and 51 from District 5.
Miller said he likes to see people vote.
He pointed to the Marion Community School District vote in September when 83 voters voted for and 48 against an income-tax surcharge for district residents as well as a physical plant and equipment levy on property taxes. Eighty-three voters, he said, put those measures in place for a school district with 8,841 registered voters.
Voters can request absentee ballots through Nov. 1 by calling the Auditor’s Office, 892-5300. Voters can vote early at the Auditor’s Office through Nov. 4. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.