Auditors across Iowa are starting to mail live ballots. Federal law requires the overseas ballots to go out by 45 days before the election - which was Saturday - and while they're at it, the domestic ones usually go out, too.
I'm always a little leery of mailed ballots, as opposed to in person early ballots. Almost every ballot at a satellite site or auditor's office gets counted. But over the years in my county, for every 10 requests for a mailed ballot, you get about nine counted votes.
Some of that's from insincere requests, to make the canvasser go away or with a plan in mind to vote on election day anyway. (Pro tip: once you've requested a mailed ballot, it's easier to just vote that ballot than to try to vote election day.) But most of it is mistakes, mistakes that are prevented with an in-person vote because a Trained Election Professional is there to walk you through it.
I'm a Trained Election Professional but I can't come over to everybody's house. So I'll do the next best and invade your computer screen with advice on How To Make Your Mailed Ballot Count.
Don't Die. If you die before election day your vote won't count (in Iowa; laws vary by state). This may, however, be beyond your control.
Don't Move. It's kind of too late on this one for most people. But if you know you're moving, don't request a ballot for your old address. If you know your move-in date, indicate that you need your ballot sent to the NEW address AFTER that date.
Don't Wait. The drop dead deadline for requests is 5 PM the Friday before the election (this year, that's Halloween). The request has to be to your auditor by that time. The closer you get to that witching hour - see what I did there - the more you're taking a chance.
Don't Fax. Not unless it's very close to election day and you're very far away. Auditors can send your ballot OUT based on a fax, but need the hard-copy original to count the vote. So there's no reason to send a fax now, six weeks out, from across town.
Make Sure You Can Get Your Mail. Include your apartment number and/or post office box, if you have those. If you need your ballot sent somewhere other than your registration address, indicate that. Again, if you're in transit, make sure you can get your mail at your destination. (If you're leaving town after Thursday, when in-person voting starts, you're better off to vote before you leave.)
Don't Wait. I know I already said that. Don't wait to request, and once you get it don't wait to vote. All right, maybe you like voting at home so you can take your time to "research the soil and water commissioners." Fair enough. (But Pro Tip 2: there is no information whatsoever available on those types of races.) But the sooner you send it, the sooner it will arrive at your auditor's office. And until the last few days, auditors are able to open the outer envelope and check the inner envelope (which is still sealed!) for mistakes. If there's a problem, they can contact you and you can try to fix it.
Don't Erase Or Cross Stuff Out. If you make a mistake, contact your auditor for a fresh ballot.
Sign It. Most common mistake. Not signing the "affidavit envelope" containing your ballot. Also, if your address isn't pre-printed on the affidavit envelope, you need to fill it in.
Seal It. Don't Re-open it. It seems like a silly thing but the law actually says: ballots arriving in an unsealed affidavit envelope can't count. And no, the auditor can't seal it for you. You have to re-vote.
Another common mistake is re-opening your ballot. Auditors include a "secrecy folder" with your ballot. You're supposed to put the ballot in the folder and the folder with the ballot in it in the envelope. Then on election day, someone opens your envelope, takes the folder out, and passes it on to someone else who takes the ballot out.
A lot of people get this origami wrong. If you leave the ballot out of the secrecy folder, that's not a Your Vote Won't Count mistake. But if you open your envelope because you forgot to put the ballot in the secrecy folder? That IS a Your Vote Won't Count mistake.
Bring it. This may be as almost as difficult as Don't Die if you're overseas. But if you're local and it's late, bring it to the auditor's office, or have someone bring it.
Ballots have to be postmarked by the day before the election (or delivered in person before the polls close) to count. Due to Postal Service budget cuts, most local mail is no longer postmarked. Auditors have been arguing with the postal service about this for several years but it's not likely to change.