Des Moines Register. April 17, 2020

Pandemic victims cannot include our democracy: Vote by mail

Watch a news conference with the current president to understand why elections matter.

Watch news clips of mask-wearing Wisconsinites who lined up to vote in their recent presidential primary to understand why Iowa must prepare for a general election in November centered on physical distancing.

Democracy cannot be among the victims of COVID-19. The virus will likely still be circulating in seven months, and Iowa should plan now to create the infrastructure needed for a safe election.

This will require an expansion of early and absentee voting, as well as an increase in no-contact ballot drop-off sites. The number of polling places should be reduced in every county to discourage large gatherings of people.

The June 2 primary election offers an opportunity for government officials and voters to practice remote methods and learn the changes we’ll need to make later in the year.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is encouraging voting by mail in the primary and has extended the mail-in voting period to 40 days. Applications for these ballots will be sent to all registered voters. Iowans can begin voting April 23 to decide, for example, which Democrat will face off against U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. (Voters must declare a Democratic Party or Republican Party affiliation to vote in a primary).

Though Pate deserves credit for those steps, he is the same executive who pushed a voter ID law that Republican lawmakers passed in 2017 to respond to virtually nonexistent election fraud. It erected additional barriers to voting.

The law resulted in confusion, court challenges, disenfranchisement and, ironically, shortened the early voting period from 40 days to 29. It also required voters to show identification when casting a ballot, which creates yet another point of contact between a voter and poll worker on Election Day.

Now here we are in the midst of a pandemic that begs for expanding the ability to vote at a distance.

Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald is among the county officials who understand the challenges.

He has reduced the number of polling sites for the June primary from about 150 to fewer than 30. He also is moving them to schools and larger buildings to allow for more distance between people. Planning includes finding hand sanitizer, mailing polling place notifications to voters, keeping up with changing health guidelines and talking to poll workers.

While he recognizes that many voters favor casting a ballot in person, he said he cannot stress enough the importance of being safe and helping flatten the curve, a reference to preventing a surge in infections that would overwhelm the health care system.

“Please vote by mail,” he said. “The push is going to be for early voting. We have a vulnerable population here.”

Iowa has many older voters who are at higher risk of severe illness and death if they contract COVID-19. Many poll workers are retirees. And while some may now think they’ll be comfortable working, they may change their minds depending on what happens with the virus in upcoming weeks and months. The result could be a last-minute shortage of poll workers.

“We don’t know how this pandemic is going to play out,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe it goes away. Maybe it doesn’t.”

Iowa must plan as though it doesn’t.

Vote absentee. Iowans temporarily staying elsewhere can request an absentee ballot be sent to their current location. You do not lose your residency for voting purposes if you are away from home during this pandemic.

A largely remote election is doable in Iowa. Of the nearly 1.6 million Iowans who participated in the 2016 general election, about 650,000 voted absentee.

If Iowa gets the right changes in place, we may even increase voter turnout.

People largely stuck at home are likely spending more time following news and reading mail. They may welcome the task of participating in democracy with a little distance. And right about now, many are fully grasping the importance of electing smart leaders who respect science, invest in preparedness and can manage a national crisis.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. April 16, 2020

Inmates, local residents team up to protect health care workers

It is a rare thing when prison inmates and residents of surrounding communities team up for a project to support the greater good.

But right now inmates of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and people in the Fort Dodge area who are good at sewing are showing the rest of Iowa and the nation just how well the two groups can work together. Their mission: producing protective cloth gowns to be worn by nursing home staff members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 90 inmates at the local prison work in the textile production shop for Iowa Prison Industries. Usually, they make blue jeans. But when the pandemic erupted, they switched to gowns. To ramp up production, Iowa Prison Industries looked beyond the razor-wire tipped fences of the prison for help.

A partnership between Iowa Prison Industries, the Department of Corrections and Iowa Central Community College quickly came together to expedite production of the gowns. However, one more element was needed: the people willing to sew.

Fort Dodge Mayor Matt Bemrich joined representatives of the college, Iowa Prison Industries and the Department of Corrections on Saturday to call for volunteers. That call was answered in a big way when more than 1,000 gown sewing kits were handed out to eager volunteers who arrived at the Iowa Central campus Monday morning to get them.

With materials for 12 gowns in each kit, that meant that Monday’s distribution will yield about 12,000 gowns. And that was just one day. Gown kits are being distributed through Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at the college’s Career Education Building.

The completed gowns are to be returned to Iowa Central. They will get a thorough cleaning in the laundry at UnityPoint Health – Trinity Regional Medical Center. Then they will be handed off to the Iowa National Guard for distribution to nursing homes throughout the state.

Just how many thousands of gowns will be made remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. The inmates and the local residents, aided by the college, have made a powerful team. They have set an example for the entire country.

We hope this experience helps inspire the inmates to lead wholesome, productive lives upon their release.

And we thank all those volunteers who picked up needles and thread to help protect Iowa’s longterm care workers.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. April 15, 2020

Dubuque city staff’s recommendation to push forward with a plan to transition to automated garbage collection is problematic — even if a rate increase is no longer attached.

While the money was an issue, those who raised questions about this had further concerns beyond the price tag.

But let’s start with the price tag.

Last month, the city proposed a 7.68% rate increase in its solid waste collection fee for the fiscal year starting July 1. The hike would have helped cover $1.9 million that the city will spend over the next three fiscal years for trash carts, two automated collection trucks and robotic arms for the city’s current trucks.

That proposal was met with a resounding “no” from this city’s Resilient Community Advisory Commission, who voted unanimously to recommend that City Council members table the proposal, citing a lack of information and public input.

Now, the plan is back, with changes that negate the need for a rate increase.

It turns out, the city needs to purchase two new trash collection trucks anyway, even without the change to automation, so their cost should not have wholly been included in the earlier estimate — just the additional cost for them to be automated collection trucks. The city now says the total cost of the move would be about $850,000 over three years.

That’s quite a difference.

It begs the question of how much study was put into the plan originally — a plan that included every household in the city paying more. Not enough study, apparently.

Still, the timing of a move toward automation feels wrong, given the tremendous impact that COVID-19 is having on our local economy. Unemployment has jumped dramatically, small businesses have taken a devastating hit, and the city itself anticipates a $2.5 million decrease in revenue this fiscal year.

Those are just the effects we know about today. It could get worse. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the budget impacts from the pandemic at a special work session set for Wednesday, April 22. At the very least, major spending decisions should be postponed until after that. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars right now when it isn’t critically necessary feels imprudent.

Another change to the plan was dialing back the proposal that every household would be required to have a 48-gallon waste cart. Now there’s an option for 34-gallon trash cart. That’s a positive change, considering a survey showed 78% of residents said a 35-gallon trash can meets their needs.

The advisory commission, which voted 8-1 this week to recommend that the City Council table the updated proposal, suggested that the city consider an option that aligns with a zero-waste goal, something that’s part of the city’s comprehensive plan, as well as its climate action plan.

Certainly, the City Council is not bound by the recommendation of the commission — that’s why they’re called advisory commissions. But in this case, the commission seems to have a better read than city staff on community support — or lack thereof — for this move.

If that’s not enough, there’s the reality that Dubuque’s hilly topography is not entirely conducive to automated collection. With winding streets, alleyways and steep inclines, the new system wouldn’t work in every neighborhood.

Citizens are worried about their health, their job security and the impact that COVID-19 will have on our vibrant community. An expensive change to automated trash collection would be an ill-timed decision..