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Iowa: How to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines, registration details, and how to vote by mail.

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Iowa is an important swing state in the General Election. Thankfully, the state's voting system is fairly easy to understand, offers lots of options for voting, and makes it easier for folks who are concerned about COVID-19 to vote safely from their homes. 

In the Hawkeye State you can register to vote online, by mail, or in person, and any registered voter is allowed to request an absentee ballot or vote early via "absentee in-person voting," which we'll explain more later. As you read through this list of deadlines and instructions, remember that the best way to guarantee your registration and ballot is counted is to send everything as early as possible. 

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Iowa?

The deadline for online, mail, and in-person registration is Saturday, October 24, 2020, but if you're registering online or in person, you must do so by 5pm, and if you're registering via mail, you should try to send the forms a few days early to ensure they arrive by the 24th. If you plan to vote by mail, consider the fact that it also takes some time to request and receive an absentee ballot after you’ve registered to vote. Again, send your forms as early as possible. We cannot emphasize this enough.

How to register to vote in Iowa

Check if you're already registered to vote here. If not, contact your county auditor to find out where to register in person, or download this form to send to the auditor's office by mail -- just make sure the forms are sent in advance of the deadline mentioned above, or postmarked for that day (I wouldn't risk it, though). You can also register online on this website, and, once again, you must do so by October 24.

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in Iowa?

Iowa voters can vote early either by absentee ballot or absentee in-person voting. For both options, you'll need to request an absentee ballot by Saturday, October 24. Anyone can do it, which isn't the case in some other states! The period for absentee in-person voting runs from Monday, October 5, to Monday, November 2, but hours and dates vary slightly based on where you're going to vote, so definitely check with your county auditor. 

How to request an absentee ballot or mail-in ballot in Iowa

As mentioned above, you need to request an absentee ballot for two different circumstances -- vote my mail and early voting. You can either mail/bring this absentee ballot request form to your auditor's office, or make a written request and send it to the office at least 10 days before the election. The written request must include the following information: 

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Iowa residential address
  • Voter verification number (ID Number)
  • Iowa driver's license, non-operator ID number, or four digit voter PIN located on the voter's Iowa Voter ID card (Any voter may request an Iowa Voter ID Card by contacting their County Auditor's Office.)
  • The name OR date of the election for which you are requesting an absentee ballot
  • Signature (scanned if you type the letter)

Finally, be sure to provide your phone number and email on your absentee ballot so a representative can call you if there's an issue. 

How to vote by mail in Iowa

Once your absentee ballot arrives in the mail you can send it back to the county auditor's office. It must be postmarked no later than 10 days before the election, but reeaalllly try to get it in earlier if you can, considering the potential for USPS delivery delays. FYI, if you don't want to mail it or are nervous about mailing in, many locations set up drop boxes in front of their buildings for contact-free drop-off. Just make sure you call the auditor's office and check if your location offers that, and slip to form in at least a day before the election. 

Is there a way to track my mail-in ballot? How can I make sure it’s counted?

Iowa does have a tracking system, that allows you to see if your county auditor has entered the absentee request into the election management system. You can also track your absentee ballot by keeping part of the tracking label and searching the letter via the USPS's website. The most reliable way to track a letter is to add certified mail service at the time of mailing, which requires that you go to the post office.

This should go without saying, but you should carefully follow the directions on your ballot. It's also always a good idea to avoid ripping or otherwise damaging your voting materials. You don't want your absentee ballot to be discarded on some sort of technicality. 

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

Make sure to review COVID-19 safety guidelines and plan your trip to the polls accordingly. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has issued several recommendations for how to keep yourself and others safe while voting specifically. 

Here's a rundown of what the CDC recommends, according to its official election guidance page:

  • Wear a mask. 
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after touching surfaces.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth with a tissue or the inside of your elbow.
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment (you could cause damage), but sanitize before and after touching it.  
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't as busy. Drive-bys are always a good idea. 
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home, and make sure to bring any necessary documents. In Iowa, that's a valid ID that must be pre-registered by the state. These include an Iowa driver's license or non-operator ID, US passport, tribal ID card/document, US military or veteran ID, or an Iowa voter ID card.
  • Bring your own black ink pen or stylus (but check in with a poll worker before using it).

Additional Iowa voting resources

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Ruby Anderson is a News Writer at Thrillist. Send your tips to randerson@thrillist.com.