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Increased turnout in a pandemic

Auditor Weipert pleased with county election process heading into third term
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert stands beside the ballot drop box at the county administration building. Weipert’s office instituted a number of voting conveniences for the Nov. 3 general election. (photos by Doug Lindner)

IOWA CITY– A record 86 percent turnout.
Huge early voting numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A fabulously popular response to drive-through voting.
Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert felt the Nov. 3 general election went really well.
On the last day of voting, he said, the staff of the auditor’s office processed 1,000 votes utilizing the drive-through service offered at the Johnson County Health and Human Services building’s parking ramp in Iowa City.
Not necessarily 1,000 cars, he pointed out. Couples would often be in the same vehicle and three or four college kids might be bunched in a car.
“Still, voting over 1,000 people in one day via drive through was insane,” he said.
Another day peaked at 900 votes, and during the first week the service was provided, 700 voters a day were coming through.
“To the point where I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get rid of it now,” he said.
Weipert, 37, a resident of Tiffin, was himself on the ballot, unopposed for reelection to a third, four-year term as county auditor. He received 63,805 votes (99 percent) with 747 write-ins against.
A native of Marquette, he graduated with a business degree from Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids and spent over a decade as a senior accountant with AEGON.
When a roommate departed, Weipert moved from Cedar Rapids to a condo in Tiffin with his sister and a friend.
At about the same time, he met his future wife Abbie, who grew up in Coralville area and was a teacher at West High School.
They started a home together in Tiffin, and Weipert became a member of the local library board.
He later decided to run for Tiffin City Council at the same time he and Abbie were looking to build a home.
“The deal was I ran for city council in Tiffin, and if I won, we would build our house in Tiffin,” he said. “If I lost, we were going to build in Coralville where she wanted to be.
“Her reaction that night was interesting.”
Weipert was one of three members elected in a five-way race for the Tiffin City Council in the 2009 election.
In 2012, he defeated incumbent auditor Tom Slockett in the June primary and was elected unopposed in the November general election.
Abbie recently left West High to become a full-time professor teaching business at Kirkwood Community College and the couple now has a 3-month-old daughter, Asa Leigh.
“Running the operation of one of the largest counties in the state, you become seasoned pretty quick,” he noted.
For the first few years, he admitted, he took some comments from the public too personally.
“Sometimes people are just angry,” he observed. “You’ve got to let stuff roll off your shoulders.”
As a candidate in 2012, Weipert promised to work toward improved voter turnout, increased satellite voting and empowering the employees of the auditor’s office.
Over 84,000 registered voters participated in the 2020 general election (86.15 percent), with over 60,000 voting early, shattering a previous record.
Weipert said it was rewarding to see such a great turnout, but more rewarding to see how well his staff performed.
People don’t understand the number of weekends employees had to work leading up to the election, he said.
The auditor’s office has just over 20 employees, and all had mandatory overtime ahead of the election, some putting in 12- to 14-hour days.
Staff still performed at a top-notch level, Weipert reported.
“Everybody knows in this office when you sign up to work here that there’s going to be one of the giant elections, so mandatory overtime,” he said.
He pointed to the minimal turnover in the office as evidence of a collaborative environment.
“I give them the tools they need to do their job, and then I stand out of the way,” he explained. “They just come to me when there are big issues. I don’t micromanage my staff, that’s for sure.”
In order to come through with its promise to deliver in-person voting prior to the election in a pandemic, the auditor’s office piloted drive-through voting during the June primary.
Staff members realized they couldn’t easily bring voters into the administration building, so they took a tip from the temporary medical testing sites that popped up across the county during the novel 2019 coronavirus outbreak.
For the June primary, a tent was rented to keep staff out of the elements, but Weipert and his crew knew they would need something on a much larger scale for the general election.
The office worked with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to clear the parking ramp at the Health and Human Services building, purchased three garden sheds, and added Internet access and heaters to them, he said.
“And then we were off and running with three lanes of voters coming through at a time,” he stated.
A ballot drop box and a selfie station were also added.
It was a weird way to increase participation, he observed.
Holding elections is only one of the duties of the auditor’s office.
The staff is responsible for taking and publishing all of the minutes for board meetings, serves as accounts payable and payroll departments for the county and is in charge of recording real estate documents.
The amount of time spent on elections depends on the time of the year, and can vary widely from year to year with special elections, Weipert explained.
Normally, his office would be preparing its annual budget, but right now the election continues to require attention because of a recount in the 2nd District congressional race between Democrat Rita Hart and Republican Marianne Miller-Meeks.
It’s been fun, exciting, and at times entertaining serving as the county’s auditor, Weipert noted.
As a people person, it’s been rewarding to meet the public doing voter drives and voter education.
“It’s just stuff like that that makes it a great job,” he said.
Heading into his third term, Weipert said he and his staff would continue to look to adapt to the rapidly changing times.
He thinks the office can improve the drive-through voting process and expand its capacity for the next major election.
“Having people wait an hour upward to two hours in line to me is never acceptable, but we’re also in a pandemic,” he said.
On a positive note, he added, people weren’t standing in line but seated in vehicles and could stream videos or do work with handheld devices.
Outside of elections, he pledged to keep his budget steady.
Weipert promised to use taxpayer dollars properly and wisely.
The office invested in election equipment and recently received over $300,000 in grant funds through Center for Tech and Civil Life to supplement election security and access, a huge savings to the taxpayers, he said.
With the increase in early voting, Weipert will seek another high-speed tabulator used to count absentee ballots.
“I have a feeling with so many people liking drive through, vote by mail, that we’re just going to see that number increase, which means we’re going to have to increase the equipment for counting those ballots,” he said.
With only about 24,000 voters in-person on election day, he continued, it’s possible to foresee the shift to early voting continue.
“That’s a huge swing to everyone voting by mail,” he noted.
Satellite voting in Solon, Tiffin and Swisher, expected to be a flop because of mask-wearing and social distance requirements, turned out to be popular as well.
“I was just blown away at the numbers of folks that came out to those sites,” he admitted.
Few lines were reported, especially during 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and he hopes to promote how easy early voting was in Johnson County.
It’s been truly joyful ride, he said, and he likes where the county as a whole is heading.
Hopefully, he added, his next term goes as smoothly as the last two.
“My wife and I and our little daughter Asa truly enjoy living in Johnson County,” he said. “I don’t think we could ask for a better place to live.”