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Iowa elections officials concerned over surge in virus cases

RYAN J. FOLEY and DAVID PITT
·4-min read
A local resident arrives to cast her ballot during early voting for the general election, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Adel, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Election 2020 Early Voting Iowa

A local resident arrives to cast her ballot during early voting for the general election, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Adel, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Elections officials in Iowa are worried about the state's rising number of coronavirus cases, saying that any illnesses or absences among key workers and volunteers could hinder their services through Election Day.

A week before the election, Iowa is reporting a new high 7-day average of about 1,300 daily infections, record numbers of hospitalizations and a surge in deaths.

The state is a battleground in the presidential race, with Vice President Mike Pence and Joe Biden both expected to visit this week. It's also home to one of the nation's most important Senate races between Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield.

County elections commissioners who have small full-time staffs and rely on experienced poll workers for help said they are hoping the virus does not sideline any of them. They have already replaced some volunteers, who opted out rather than risk working long shifts and interacting with voters who could be carrying the virus.

Any unexpected absences or last-minute substitutes could lead to delays and long lines, particularly because social distance will be required for those waiting, officials warn. Some early voting sites in other states temporarily closed after poll workers tested positive.

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz said she's asked her employees and polling place workers to self-quarantine until Tuesday to avoid the possibility of catching the virus.

“I asked them to take that call upon themselves and to think about if they get sick what that means to our community on Tuesday," said Moritz, the chairwoman of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors. “My concern is that if they get taken out, who fills that position? We’re already struggling as it is.”

She said lines at polling places would likely be outdoors because voters will not be able to cram into hallways like they might have in the past. The early forecast for Tuesday appears to look promising: sunny and in the high 50s.

In the Republican stronghold of Sioux County, at least one employee in the elections office has tested positive for coronavirus, county officials said. Sioux County Auditor Ryan Dokter declined to release the total number of positive cases among his staff of six full-time workers, saying it would be a health privacy violation.

“One could easily determine the positive case(s) by simply coming to the office and see what employees are or are not present,” he wrote in an email.

Dokter added that “there will be no change to our current operations.” He did not answer directly when asked whether infected staff had contact with the public or whether other staff had to be quarantined as a result of potential exposure.

Instead, he noted his office has installed barriers between staff and voters, has been sanitizing voting booths and areas where the public has frequent contact and its employees have been wearing masks.

The public has not been informed of any issues in Sioux County, a small but key source of Republican votes. In 2016, Donald Trump carried 81% of votes cast in the county — earning 12,485 more votes than Hillary Clinton.

Like much of northwest Iowa, the county has seen a surge of coronavirus cases since September. The county’s two-week positivity rate is 18%, among the highest in the state, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

This year’s focus on absentee voting — and a smaller number of polling places that will be open statewide — should partly alleviate the Election Day concerns.

More than 783,000 voters had returned absentee ballots or voted early in person as of Tuesday, nearly half the 2016 total turnout. Tens of thousands more ballots are expected to arrive by mail or be dropped off in coming days, and auditors offices will also remain open for early voting this week.

Voters cannot be required to wear masks at polling places, Iowa Secretary of State spokesman Kevin Hall said. The state office is equipping counties with masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and social distancing markers for workers and voters at every site, he added.

Mitchell County Auditor Lowell Tesch said he’s had a few poll workers cancel but also noted additional volunteers signed up to help if needed.

“We just hope that a week from now we don’t have something where a lot of people say they can’t work,” he said.

__ Pitt reported from Des Moines.