DES MOINES, Iowa - Election Day may still be 40 days away, but Iowans can vote early beginning Thursday. And in Polk County, officials estimate a record turnout of absentee ballots this year.
"Historically, non-presidential years go about 65-70% turnout," said Jamie Fitzgerald, Polk County Auditor and Commissioner of Elections. "And we firmly think we're going to be above that in Polk County this year."
Fitzgerald says there were about 60 people in line when the election office opened its doors Thursday morning, and by 2:00 p.m., the office reported just over 200 people had come in to vote early. Additionally, Polk County mailed out around 22,000 absentee ballots to voters who requested them prior to the start date.
Several politicians attended the first round of early voting in Polk County Thursday morning, including Democratic candidate for Secretary of State, Brad Anderson. Anderson is challenging Republican Paul Pate, who formerly held the title in the state from 1995-1999. He says high early voter turnout in Polk County reflects the growing trend across the state.
"There's no question that early voting is becoming more and more a part of our culture. And that's a good thing," he said at the Polk County Auditor's Election Office. "I encourage everyone to consider early voting, because people like us, we lead busy lives. We've got swimming, piano, soccer, all kinds of things."
The State of Iowa makes early voting easy:
- Start by filling out an absentee ballot request form, which you can download at the Iowa Secretary of State's website, before October 31st, and mail it to your county auditor's office. They'll send you back an absentee ballot, which you can fill out from home, and mail back to their office free-of-charge, as postage is prepaid.
- You can also cast an early vote in person at your county auditor's election office, beginning Thursday and through Election Day. These offices should be open Monday-Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Additionally, state law requires these offices to be open on the last two Saturdays before Election Day, so if you can't get out of work, you can go on one of those weekends.
- Beginning October 7th, it gets even easier; visit a satellite location in your neighborhood and cast an absentee ballot from there. You can find out the closest satellite location to you by visiting your county auditor's website.
"My vote counts, and I want to make sure to get it done early," said Jane Hammarlund of Johnston. "So I don't have to be dependent on weather, or lines, and things like that."
Comparing the number of absentee ballot requests for the 2010 midterm elections and 2014's, officials say early voting has increased by 97%. And while midterm election years normally see a lower voter turnout than presidential election years, Fitzgerald says an increase in early voting over the years has boosted voter turnout.
"Compared to 2012, which was a huge election, we had 93,000 absentee ballots cast, and over 230,000 ballots cast in Polk County alone," he said. "We're already close to that number already, in terms of absentee ballot requests, when you look at the time-frames from two years ago."
For Anderson, he says he'd like to see Iowans beat a nearby state in voter turnout for the first time.
"My goal is to beat Minnesota," he said. "You know, Minnesota beats us every year in voter turnout. And my goal is to, again, find ways in the state to make it easier to vote, help beat Minnesota, and just really, really, help encourage a healthy voter turnout here in Iowa."
Officials say early voting does come with this warning: once you've cast your absentee ballot, your county auditor can't return it to you. If you worry about changing your mind on a candidate between now and November, perhaps early voting isn't the right way to go.