Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Last Thoughts On The Second District

I was subpoenaed late last week and was preparing to give a deposition this week on the Rita Hart challenge to Mariannette Miller-Meeks and the 2nd CD election results. I have expected that for about four months now, and that's why I've been mostly silent on the 2nd District race.

That ended abruptly about 3 PM today as Hart dropped the challenge and conceded. I am feeling all sorts of things - professional, political, and personal - right now, but my immediate feeling is personal relief. I've been biting my tongue bloody not commenting on this except to family and co-workers, and now I can finally speak my mind. It's not going to make everyone happy - but in my mind there's no real winners.

The Rhetorical Trap

After the recount that left her six votes short was canvassed on November 30, Hart had an extremely short timeline, just over a week to request and complete a state level challenge to the election. Team Hart decided, and they weren't wrong, that a week was insufficient time. The challenge process is designed for small city councils or maybe a legislative district, not for a quarter of the state.

Instead, Hart decided to bypass the state process and appeal the election directly to the House of Representatives, which under the Constitution - not even an amendment, but the original Founder's text - is the final judge of its own elections.

We may never know the legal reasoning behind that decision. But politically, it was a trap, and Iowa and DC Republicans were unanimous in their rhetoric: Hart and Nancy Pelosi are trying to use a partisan process to overturn an election that a bipartisan Iowa canvass board certified. 

Almost verbatim. Over and over again. It was really an impressive feat of messaging. But don't give the Republicans too much credit because...

The Republicans disingenuously refused to answer the underlying questions.

As I write, the Republicans are touchdown dancing just a little too vigorously, considering they only "won"* by six freakin' votes.

Packer fans, of which as you know I am one, are still not over the September 2012 Monday Night Football game against Seattle. There was a referee strike underway, and the game was being officiated by replacement refs ("scabs" for my union friends).

In a Hail Mary situation with time expired, one referee signaled Seattle touchdown, one signaled Packer interception. The call went to the Seahawks and the Packers lost. The next day league officials admitted the touchdown call was wrong, but refused to reverse the outcome of the game. It has gone down in Packer lore as the "Fail Mary." (The referee strike was immediately settled.)

Is it right that a team should lose a game because an inexperienced official made a mistake? The NFL never really answered that.

Is it right that a voter should lose their vote, and that a candidate should lose a seat in Congress, because a precinct official or a temp worker made a mistake? The Iowa Republicans have never really answered that either. They've fallen back on "the call on the field stands." They "won"* this election on a bad call - a Fail Mariannette.

As near as I could tell, there was never serious media push on this. Every story I saw was Both Sides. Trump challenged the election, Hart challenged the election. Same thing. "These are two totally different things" may have been too complicated for the masses, but the press should have understood. No one ever pushed: 

"This person was incorrectly told by a part time temp worker to re-open the envelope they got that had arrived already sealed, tape it back shut, and sign over it. Is it fair that their vote didn't count?"

"Hart and Nancy Pelosi are trying to use a partisan process to overturn an election that a bipartisan Iowa canvass board certified."

The auditors were thrown under the bus.

Are you perfect at your job?

Do you know anyone who is perfect at their job?

I'm not perfect at my job. But after 23 years I am very good at it. So are my boss and my co-workers. We are damn proud of it.

We had the best crew of temp workers we've ever had. They worked endless hours and risked their health in a pandemic to help people vote, through the mail and from their cars as we cranked 18,000 people through a parking ramp in four weeks. We also had, and these are the people I most worked with, our best ever mail room team that checked in mailed ballots, found the mistakes, and contacted the voters as fast as they could. We had remarkably few unfixed problems that we had to reject.

We also had a great team of Election Day poll workers - there were a lot of new faces because many of our elderly workers were literally afraid for their lives during COVID.

We had a great absentee board - we've had years like 2004 where there were mass challenges and rejections, but this team worked hard to count every vote. We also had wonderful party vote protection observers from outside the office on both sides - my Republican friends were not focused on challenging ballots but on helping their problem voters get their problems fixed.

I don't want to play nit-picky games over trivial bureaucratic issues. I do what I do for a career because I deeply believe in helping people vote. But even the greatest doctor can't save every life, and even the best election team can't save every vote - and it's heartbreaking when we can't.

But for three solid weeks in December and January, after Pelosi had made the decision to "provisionally" seat Miller-Meeks, the Hart Campaign and the Iowa Democratic Party sent out daily press releases featuring the problem voters, and almost always including some tone implying election workers are incompetent and some variation of "22 ballots were illegally not counted."

Maybe I'm too defensive, but I took offense at that. 

We weren't perfect, but in my objective professional judgement we did the best we ever have. And as I'll explain, it's entirely possible for a ballot to be legally cast, and yet at the same time legally not counted. 

What I was preparing to testify about

My job the morning after the election is organizing paperwork from the precincts. I have to track down, open, and sort 57 yellow bags, our technical term for which is "yellow bags," of paperwork, one from each precinct. Some of them are neatly organized, others are a mess. I organize piles of election day registrations, address changes, and other minor items, but the most important things are the provisional ballots. I need to post a list of how many, and I need to start researching the circumstances to see if we can count any.

We have changed our polling place printing procedures from labels to full sheets, and one of the newer instructions to poll workers is to attach the voter's provisional ballot paperwork to the envelope containing their ballot. We have tape and glue sticks and paper clips.

So I opened a yellow bag and started organizing, and I found in no particular order a pair of voted provisional ballots and two sets of paperwork not attached. By the time I knew there was a problem, there was no way to know if things had been in a particular order, and no way to identify which ballot belonged to which voter.

I was not happy. This was a serious mistake. It could only be repaired if both voters brought in their ID materials to cure the problem. It's actually kind of uncommon for provisional voters to come in and fix things - they usually feel like they "voted" and "the election" (by which I mean "for president" which is how most voters see it) wasn't close.

And the worst thing possible happened. One voter brought her materials in. The other voter had made an unfixable mistake and voted at the wrong precinct - Iowa code specifically says provisionals at the wrong precinct can't count. So one ballot was good and one was not, but we had no way to know which was which.

Permanent staff does not make these final decisions. But the absentee board looks to us for guidance. I presented all the provisional ballots to the team, which I always do grouped by nature of problem so that decisions can be consistent. At the end I had to tell the team this story, both ballots in hand, and recommend that they be rejected, which the team did.

So that's basically my testimony. I wrote this instead so my prep work wasn't all wasted.

It wasn't fair, but as a lawyer once told me fair and the law aren't always the same thing. And we feel bad enough about it without being told we broke the law. That was not "illegally not counting the votes." It would have been illegal for me to do otherwise. 

Rita Hart had no choice but to take one for the team.

Hart had the worst possible luck. It wasn't just that she had the closest congressional race in at least 40 years, and that it turned on minor clerical errors.

It was that this happened at the same time as a defeated president lied about massive voter fraud, refused to concede, and gave aid and comfort to criminals who invaded our Capitol and murdered police officers.

If it weren't for that, the 2nd District challenge would still have been bitter and partisan and controversial. But it would have been possible. Instead, we had an environment where immeasurable imaginary fraud and 22 very specific examples of minor mistakes were treated as Both Sides Identical.

Nancy Pelosi had bigger problems in late December than one seat in Iowa. She had to defend the legitimacy of democracy itself, when it was still not entirely clear what was going to happen with Trump's intransigence (and before it was even possible to imagine how bad it actually turned out). 

And Nancy Pelosi also counts votes better than anyone. The last time there was a challenge like this, Tip O'Neill lost ten Democratic votes on the final floor vote - and Pelosi didn't have ten to spare, and she hates to lose in public.

I'm sure there was a long heart to Hart talk before Pelosi announced the decision to provisionally seat Miller-Meeks. But Hart wasn't having it and continued on. The fight was escalating as the committee prepared to launch into the challenge and as people like me were getting called on for testimony. We were getting closer to crisis time, and as we all know there are some rather unstable and weapon-obsessed House members. It was scary enough on TV in January - Madame Speaker was there and being literally hunted.

This is only speculation, but my best guess as to why Hart suddenly dropped her challenge today is that the Speaker reached out for help to someone higher up - and you know who I mean by that - to once again ask Rita Hart to take one for the team. It was an unpleasant situation where what was right wasn't politically possible, and that is entirely the fault of Donald Trump and his lies about a stolen election.

Rita Hart's loss is NOT Johnson County's fault.

In the one comment I have already made about this race, I took issue with the speading conventional "wisdom" that Hart lost because of under-voting in Johnson County. Instead I demonstrated that our undervote in the congressional race was on a par with past elections, which smart campaign number crunchers would understand. Her "underperformance" of Biden was more likely Biden's OVER-performance with Never Trump Republicans who are more numerous here than in more rural areas.

Instead of blaming the county where Hart performed nearly 15 points better than anywhere else, Iowa Democrats would spend better time trying to find more votes in the counties where Miller-Meeks won three to one.

What Next?

The future of Iowa's congressional delegation is more up in the air than in most states. Barring massive changes to our redistricting system (which might have happened if not for the late census and compressed timeline), Iowa legislators have less control over district lines than in most states, and are generally more worried about their own seats than about the congressional lines.

Rita Hart lives in a mid-sized county on the edge of a district that has grown and needs to shed population. If she should run again, she could very easily find herself running not against Miller-Meeks, but on almost entirely new turf against Ashley Hinson - and Abby Finkenauer is acting very much like someone who wants to make a comeback.

The other question is whether the election challenge, and media acceptance of the Republican "Iowa certified this election" rhetoric, has done long term damage to Hart.

No Real Winners

Maybe on paper you can call Miller-Meeks a "winner" here. But her party's refusal to address the underlying questions of voter disenfranchisement, on the spurious grounds that "the call on the field should stand," is a bad look. Also a bad look: the media buying the GOP rhetoric and refusing to press for answers on the disenfranchisement issues.

When you only win by six votes, you go into the next cycle with a big target on your back. Also, calling your political action committee "Six PAC" is a bad look when you won the game on a bad call.

Iowa Democrats, meanwhile, have lost a seat that the underrated and underappreciated Dave Loebsack had for 14 years, and have gotten perhaps unfairly a Sore Loser label. Also unfairly, this fight undercut the very important message that Joe Biden's election was legitimate. Rita Hart took one for the team, but it may have been too little too late.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Bad News By The Numbers

Smith and Kaufmann discuss additional amendments

In the words of the great philosopher Beavis, that sucked. 

Led by Sen. Roby Smith and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, Iowa Republican legislators raced through a bill, Senate File 413, that among other things shrinks the voting and voter registration timeline.

Kaufmann angrily argued that none of the changes were "voter suppression." But these kinds of bills are death by a thousand cuts. Each change that makes it just a little bit harder, each day lost, means some people just won't be able to make it work.

How many? Assuming the changes aren't overturned by the inevitable lawsuits, or federal bills don't arrive like the cavalry to save us, here's how the changes could affect the numbers here in Johnson County.

Consider this a warning.

Johnson County's total 2020 turnout was 84,198. 72% of the county vote was cast early. That includes all voting plans - mail, in-person, satellite, and overseas - and those voters went 80% for Joe Biden. Donald Trump won - yes, in Johnson County, won - the 28% who voted on Election Day by a 51-45% margin.

The general assumptions below are that people stick with their 2020 voting plan, unless the context indicates otherwise.
Voter caging: Inactivation after missing one general election

Current Johnson County active status registration is at 97,704. That's immediately after  the annual post office National Change Of Address (NCOA) update, which already inactivated about 2850 voters. That's been standard procedure since 1995, under the 1993 federal Motor Voter law. 

Of the 97,704 active registered, there are 5655 who 1) last updated their registration before the 2018 general election and 2) did not vote in the 2020 general. Under the new law, these voters would be inactivated without advance notice, and only after being inactivated would be sent a must-respond card in order to not get totally cancelled after 2024.

That compares to 2486 who 1) have a last update date before the 2016 general and 2) have not voted since before the 2018 general. Under previous law, these 2486 voters would get a Four Year No Activity reminder card. They would not be inactivated unless that card was returned by the post office as undeliverable or if the current resident indicated the person had moved. (The voter could also sign and return the card and either be OK or be correctly canceled, whichever applied.) If the card was not returned, we were to assume that the voter still lived there.

So those 2486 people lose their advance notice, and an additional 3169 would be inactivated, before being sent a notice, two years sooner.

Some of these people really do need to get inactivated and cancelled. Despite Johnson County's years of proactive alerts before mailings are sent, we still have a small handful of very old active registrations.  The two main issues are 1) Greek houses, who sort their own mail and generally pitch stuff addressed to alumni. (The dorms are very good about getting stuff back to us.) 2) Townie adults who have moved away but still get mail delivered at their parents. The parents are generally more concerned about this than the voters, but we can't fix it without the voter's own signature.

But some infrequent voters don't need to get purged. In 2020 we had 5651 voters who had last voted in the 2016 general and skipped 2018, and another 2697 who had not voted since before 2016 (there was a lot of "I don't like either of them" that year.) All these folks would have had more problems under the new law. This is a case where the cure is worse than the illness.

Change in pre-registration deadline from 10 days to 15

Iowa's registration deadline was 10 days before a general election for decades. This became a "pre-registration" deadline after the Election Day Registration (EDR) law took effect in 2008. There had not been a serious effort to change this deadline in many years. But this week, in a late amendment the day after the House hearing, the bill was amended to move the deadline back to 15 days.

Last year Johnson County had 1121 new registrations from Day 14 (October 20) to Day 10 (October 24).

  • 376 voted at the polls (includes one provisional ballot)
  • 290 voted at satellites
  • 286 voted in person at the office
  • 46 voted by mail
  • 123 didn’t follow through and vote (or tried and failed)

Assuming these people still try to vote, that’s about 1000 more voters who will have to use the more difficult EDR or provisional voting procedures, on top of the roughly 3000 EDRs we had in 2020. That takes longer, which slows down the line for everyone. Of course, some will be Not Votes.

Change in vote by mail request period

(Note that most changes in mail ballot procedure do not affect military and overseas voters, who are covered under federal law.)

Through the 2002 cycle, the first day for domestic civilian voters to request a mailed ballot was 70 days out. From 2004 to 2016 there was no first day specified in the law, and auditors had to keep requests on file indefinitely. My personal record was close to two years. 

I wasn't a fan of this because too-soon requests cause a lot of problems. In the 2004 cycle, requests were coming in from caucus night in January, and student neighborhoods were getting doorknocked in June. Every lease in Iowa City turns over on August 1. When we started mailing ballots out in late September (those were the good old days), many went to bad addresses. We managed to explain this to campaigns in future cycles (I still had to personally remove the request forms from the Johnson County caucus packets), so it got a bit better, but the problem still popped up.

So when the law changed in 2017 to 120 days (early July) I didn't shed many tears. Now we're back to 70 and that affects the workload. We had 35,504 total non-voided vote by mail requests (not counting ones that were later voided when voters changed their voting plan). 10,454 were received and data-entered on days 120 through 71. 

Assuming all these voters still choose vote by mail, this data entry work from Days 120 through 71 is added to the workload of Days 70 through 15. We'll be processing 30% more requests per day.


This also places the initial load of absentee data entry into late August - the same time as the back to campus registration drives. With campus largely locked down, these were relatively small in 2020. But in 2016, total Johnson County registration increased by about 2500 in the two weeks at the beginning of the semester. Two big piles of work that used to be at different times will now be at the same time.

We've also lost summer doorknocking for absentee requests. Back in the 1990s, campaigns could knock all summer, hang onto the forms, and turn them all in on Day 70.

But in an earlier change to the law, campaigns must now turn forms in within 72 hours of collecting them. That means they can't start asking until Day 73. Luckily that's a Saturday, so there will be a kickoff weekend, assuming campaigns are doorknocking in 2022. At the rate Iowa is going we'll still be in COVID mode.

The last day to request a ballot has also changed. When I started working for the auditor in 1997, there was no deadline; we had to honor requests that arrived the day before the election. In that era of faster mail delivery, it sometimes worked.

When a deadline was added to the law, it was originally four days, then changed to 10 or 11 days (depending on election type) in 2017. But in another last-second change, amendments to SF413 moved the deadline to 15 days out.

In Johnson County, 969 voters successfully sent requests and returned counted mailed ballots on days 14 through 10. (There were another 63 voided requests,  mostly people who changed their voting plan, and another 62 who didn’t return the ballot.) These people would have to choose a different voting plan - if possible. Of the 969 successful requests, 128 were mailed out of town. Those people would likely not have been able to vote.

Later start date for mailing out ballots

As noted above, in 2020 Johnson County had 35,504 total non-voided domestic vote by mail requests. (704 of those were not returned.)

The vast majority, 29,432, were mailed on the first day allowed, October 5, 29 days before the election. SF413 changes the first day to mail ballots to just 20 days before the election. That means all these voters would have eight fewer days  to vote and return their ballots. Another 3293 ballots were mailed on days 28 through 21, and those voters would see a corresponding drop in turnaround time. 

Of the total 32,724 ballots mailed before Day 20, 1060 were sent to a different mailing address than their registration street address. Some of those were sent to local post office boxes, which are very common in our smaller towns. But the majority were the more time-sensitive ballots mailed to addresses outside the county. (I would have to go line by line through the list to get an exact number.)

The biggest issue with the shorter mailing window is voters with complications: mail delivery problems (which we don't even learn about for several days), spoiled ballots, or damaged packets.

It’s a little hard to tell but my best estimate is that roughly 700 voters who initially requested a ballot by mail had some kind of problem that required a void and re-issue. (This excludes people who simply changed their voting plan and voted in person.) Some of these were easy, some hard. Some of these were local, some were long distance and could only be dealt with through mail. Some were people with mobility or transportation issues and could only be dealt with through mail.

Some problems are just not going to get fixed. We have lost eight calendar days on the front end for helping these voters...

Drop dead deadline - all ballots must arrive by close of polls

...and we've also lost days on the back end.

Longtime Iowa law has been that ballots postmarked by the day before the election and which arrive in the first few days after the election (usually the Monday after) could be counted. For one election cycle, 2020, we incorporated intelligent bar code tracking into that day before election rule.

All that's gone now and Iowa will have what is called a "Sure Count" deadline by its advocates or a "Drop Dead" deadline by its opponents. Ballots that don't arrive before the polls close don't count. 

(That close will now be an hour earlier, at 8 PM rather than 9. That change has been in the works for a long time and I'm amazed it took this long. We tracked some data on voters between 8 and 9 PM in the 1990s and 2000s and determined that the final hour wasn't much different than the average hour: a little busier than average in campus precincts but almost completely dead in farm rural precincts.)

Johnson County only had 33 counted domestic mail ballots that were postmarked after Election Day, but that’s mostly due to a heroic extra effort by the Iowa City post office who made a second mail delivery on both Monday and Election Day. A lot of ballots where the postmark would have been an issue were already in our hands when the polls closed.

In 2016, we got 117 countable domestic mail ballots after Election Day, and that's more typical. This number will likely increase with out of town voters getting their ballots nine days later. However many it is, they don't count.

In a gap that Kaufmann and Smith plugged mostly for appearance's sake, there's exceptions in the law for overseas ballots and for the Safe At Home ballots sent to some domestic violence survivors.

Johnson County had a total of 667 overseas ballots counted. Most were returned by email. Under a COVID emergency ruling, all overseas voters could return ballots by email. Normally, only military voters or civilians in a very few high risk areas can return ballots by email. In any case, federal law applies here and overseas and military voters will still be sent their ballots 45 days out and will still be counted based on postmarks.

Despite the postmark exception, eight fewer days on the front end will still make it harder for Safe At Home voters. No statistical data is available on Safe At Home but the numbers are very small.

Later Start Date For In Person Voting

When no-excuse early voting began in Iowa in the early 1990s, we could begin voting 40 days before primary and general elections. That early start date let the committed partisans get their business out of the way and made the line shorter for those who decided later.

But Roby Smith decided that we shouldn't vote before watching debates, at least that was the on the record excuse. So in 2017, Republicans shortened this to 29 days. SF413 chops this even more, to 20 days. This time, the excuse was "to be more in line with other states."

Johnson County adapted to COVID by moving our office voting operation to a drive-thru setup at our building's parking ramp. Voters loved it. In 25 working days, we had 18,006 total voters at the ramp. 

5089 of those were in the first seven voting days and would have to vote later. Assuming no one changes their voting plan, and that we have a seven day a week schedule, that’s 267 more voters in the line each day.


I'm still surprised Republicans have not banned satellite voting entirely. (My theory is that some mega-churches are interested in the possibility of satellite sites.) Historically, Johnson County has had the biggest satellite program, and satellite voters have trended the most heavily Democratic. There's no separate vote total data, but looking at party affiliation data, margins of 10 to 1 Democratic at the Iowa City Public Library are not uncommon.

There's been a slight trend away from satellites and toward the office and mail in recent cycles, but we still saw 7457 satellite voters in 2020. 494 of those were at sites on Day 22 and Day 21, which would no longer be allowed.

The new law takes away the auditor's ability to schedule sites on their own. From now on only petitioned sites will be allowed. The petitions for the traditional popular Johnson County sites will undoubtedly happen, but the change increases the chances that we'll also see more petitions for less effective sites. 

We've already seen the worst case scenario: In 2010, when the 21 Bar issue was on the ballot, we were petitioned for 23 separate locations, primarily on campus. And at that time we had five weeks, not three, to get it all done.

Campus is the biggest problem, and no doubt the biggest reason for the change. Rural Republican legislators are, laughably, convinced that the reason Johnson County is The People's Republic is undergrad student votes. It's not - it's faculty and staff that make Johnson County so blue - but there's also many who have an ideological belief (despite a 1978 Supreme Court ruling) that college students should simply not be allowed to vote in their college town and should only vote absentee ballots from their parental address. 

(Sadly, some Johnson County residents think so too. They begrudgingly accept that the students should get to vote for president, but they draw the line at local elections. We haven't had a student on the city council in 40 years.) 

All of our historic data going back to the beginning of unrestricted early voting in Iowa 30 years ago shows that a student is more able to successfully vote a counted ballot in their college town rather than Back Home, and that campus voting sites are more effective before the pre-registration deadline. The only effective ways to get students to vote are pre-deadline sites on campus or Election Day Registration at the polls.

In 2016 we had 2000 voters at the Iowa Memorial Union in a five day run from Day 15 through Day 11, plus another 500 total at three other campus sites. 

With campus being half empty, that dropped to 1217 IMU voters on those same five days this cycle. Only 117 of that was on Monday, Day 15, which is the new pre-registration deadline. The totals increased each day as people learned about the site through word of mouth, and of course students are very deadline-driven. We had over 500 voters on the last day.

Of the exactly 1100 IMU voters from Tuesday through Friday, 195 were completely new registrations to Johnson County. I can't easily get an exact number but most of the rest were changing their address. The number of completely new registrations is lower than it normally would be, because of the high registration from the caucuses. We won't see that in 2022, and probably not in 2024 because either the caucuses will die or President Biden will running again or both.

In any event, these voters would all be shifting from a very simple pre-registration process - complete the form and vote - to a harder EDR process requiring proof of address. That's not insurmountable for on-campus students who have electronic access to their dorm contracts. But off-campus students often don't have bills in their name, and no one habitually carries their paper lease with them.

With fewer days and opportunities, this is where a lot of voters will be pushed into different voting plans. Library voters will likely end up at the office, and the campus vote will turn into EDRs at the polls - or into Not Votes. 

UPDATE: Story County Auditor Lucy Martin reminded me "It all applies to Story County as well except here the county seat and the population center are not the same (which makes things more complicated)." Our office is several blocks from the campus area. Out of the way, out of the cultural comfort zone, and less convenient - but possible. 

But the Story County courthouse is in Nevada, several miles away from Ames. It would be like having to go from Iowa City to Solon to vote early. Grinnell students also face an out of town trek to the Poweshiek County seat in Montezuma. UNI students would have to travel about five miles across town from the campus in west Cedar Falls to the Black Hawk County courthouse in downtown Waterloo.

Impact on Election Day

It’s hard to predict how post-COVID and changes in the law will change people’s voting plans. But just as a numbers exercise:

72.37% of Johnson County voters voted early in 2020: 60,934 early (all voting plans) and 23,264 at the polls. Our previous general election record for highest absentee percentage was 57.93% in 2012. Personally I don’t think we’ll ever drop that low again in a general election and that we will settle into a range of around 65% early. But let’s say we do. 

Take our 2020 turnout of 84,198, and apply the 2012 absentee rate of 57.93% early, and you get 48,776 early and 35,422 at the polls. That’s 12,158 more voters at the polls, and roughly 1.5 times the number poll workers to take care of 1.5 times the number of voters.

That will vary a lot by precinct. It will also mean space crunches in some places, especially the campus precincts.

So more workers, when we're already having trouble keeping enough, and additional Scary Laws about poll watchers to scare them. It's part of the Big Lie mythology that election workers blocked Republican observers, so Smith and Kaufmann added draconian penalties for "interference." That's the kind of thing that makes poll workers quit - nobody wants to risk jail for trying to manage a bullying poll watcher.

Ballot Chasing Banned

Ballot chasing - I never heard the term "harvesting" until 2018 - has been clean and honest in Iowa, and was well regulated by existing law. But there have been incidents in other states, most notoriously in North Carolina in 2018 where Republican operatives were collecting Democratic ballots and not bringing them in. And the media in particular is very suspicious of the practice. 

So it's not the hill I want to die on, but it still hurts some voters. I don't have numbers, but there's going to be some non-zero number of people who have no one else to help them, or who just won't get it done without the personal persuasion.

I thought there was going to be a fix so that a voter could have anyone they wanted, other than a campaign, return a ballot. That didn't happen, and now only caregivers or immediate family members can drop off your ballot. This eliminates a lot of helpers that seniors rely on like neighbors, church members, or just random people. My parents get a lot of informal help from my mom's hairdresser and her husband.

Maybe I should have prepped these numbers before the debate, but turtles move very fast when they want to, and it wouldn't have changed the votes anyway. 🐢

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Bad Election Bill Is Bad

The Roby Smith Bad Election Bill is here and it's bad.
SSB1199 or HSB213 (text looks the same) would cut early voting - mail and in person - to 18 days, down from 29 last year and from 40 in 2016. And that's not even the worst item:
"The (county) commissioner shall not send an absentee ballot application to a voter." 
My read of that is: AT ALL, not even if the voter specifically asks. Shut In Great Grandma with no printer calls and asks for a request form, and we can't help.
Other lowlights include a lot of micromanaging of auditors to address imaginary problems like dead voters or auditors not doing list maintenance. Speaking of which...
Voters would be inactivated after missing ONE general election, not two. And that's just for not voting, not for mail getting returned. They're inactivated THEN sent a card they have to respond to. Miss one governor election and the cancellation clock starts ticking.
In a nod to the Libertarians, petition requirements are once again raised. This is about Cindy Axne winning twice with under 50% because a Libertarian in a tricorner hat pulls votes away from David Young. 
Requirements for nominating convention attendance are also increased, to a point where even the major parties would have difficulty seating enough delegates to fill a legislative district vacancy (25 people).
Satellite voting would, to my surprise, not be completely banned, but auditors could not set sites on their own. Only petitioned sites would be allowed. That'll increase costs - a lot of times, people ask nice for a satellite and we schedule the three or four hours they really want. A petition obligates the auditor to six hours.
The bill would eliminate the use of USPS postmarks to decide if a ballot is on time, and instead would only allow intelligent barcodes. Overseas mail does not have these barcode, though I'm not sure if federal law would overrule this item.
Ballot chasing (often called "harvesting" though "chasing" is the Iowa vernacular) would be banned. Only relatives, caregivers, or housemates could return your ballot - you can't hep your neighbor.
Remember that couple days last fall when it looked like dropboxes were banned? This bill does codify the use of dropboxes, but limits them to one per county and only at the auditor's office. There's also some regulation which doesn't differ much from our actual practice.
The first day to request a ballot would move to 70 days prior to the election, which was the law through 2002. From 2004 to 2016 there was no first day, we had to hold forms for literally years (my record was 18 months). Then it was moved to 120 days in 2017.

My professional and political feelings differ here. In a college town where every lease turns over on August 1, way-too-soon requests are a problem, and were a big problem in 2004. (I was living in a high turnover apartment complex that year, and we were doorknocked in JUNE.) People request the ballot then move, and we mail the ballot to a bad address. So I liked the old 70 day law. 
But: Combined with later laws requiring forms to be handed in within 72 hours, 70 days would basically kill summer doorknocking for ABRs.
One thing I don't see is an 8 PM poll close, but that's in the SOS "technical" bill already. That bill also shortens the time-off on election day requirement from 3 hours to two, in order to facilitate the 8 PM close. 
(The only reason 8 PM close got shot down last election bill was because business was looking at the three hours off to vote requirement. A lot of plants run 6 to 6 shifts, and the 9 PM poll close gave people the required three hours off.)
18 days is bad for in person voting: longer lines and bigger crowds.
18 days is absolutely unacceptable for mailed voting. 29 days was just barely enough time, IF everything went well with no problems. 
18 days means anyone who is out of town or shut in who has ANY kind of problem - mail delay, spoiled ballot, any problem at all - is just out of luck. 18 days also compresses all the mailing out into ONE WEEK, burdening both the post offices and the election staffs.
(It's DOA of course, but my senator, Democratic leader Zach Wahls, introduced a bill that would expand the early voting window to 45 days, which is consistent with what overseas voters get under federal law.)
This bill could have been even worse, but it's bad enough. That's what I got for now. Watch closely, fight to stop it, fight to make it less bad. Don't make me tell Great Grandma I can't mail her an ABR.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Johnson County Number Crunching, Part 4: Who Voted

Six weeks post-election I'm well on the road to recovery. I went non-stop for about a year and a half - from the time I started booking caucus rooms in April 2019, through the primary and into the presidential. That's three whole Taylor Swift albums if that's how you keep score.

It takes some time post-election to process voter history records - a recount slows that down a bit - but we wrapped up a couple weeks back and now I've had some time to figure out who voted by party, how they voted by method, and I've done some guessing about how the no party voters went here in the People's Republic.

Voter history records are a different thing than canvassed vote totals, and the two different sets of numbers are rarely a perfect match. The main problem is that 99 counties are all balancing the books at once and that registration activity is constant. So sometimes another county takes a voter away from us before we can give them credit for voting - which is NOT the same thing as counting the vote. The statistical report for our county is within 20 of the canvassed number of voters, which is about as close as it ever gets.

Here's the party breakdown of voters by party, with a grand total and split into by election day and early voting. 

Voters Early Eday Total
total 60915   23262   84177  
Democratic 39034 64.08% 7150 30.74% 46184 54.87%
Republican 8714 14.31% 7114 30.58% 15828 18.80%
Libertarian 250 0.41% 271 1.16% 521 0.62%
Green 100 0.16% 51 0.22% 151 0.18%
No Party 12817 21.04% 8676 37.30% 21493 25.53%
The post-election registration percentages were 52.2% Democratic, 18.4% Republican, and 28.5% no party.  Overall turnout is very, very close to that. It's just a little more Democratic and a little less no party.

While the early voters were overwhelmingly Democratic, the Democrats and Republicans were nearly tied on Election Day. More no party people voted on Election Day than either major party.  Libertarians were the only voters more likely to vote on Election Day than early. I suspect that's student-age election day registrations; statistically Libertarians lean very young.

The 72.4% of the total vote that was cast early is down a little bit from the record 76.7% from the primary, probably due to the mail scare and due to COVID fatigue. The primary voting window in May was during the peak of what little semi-shutdown down Iowa had.(One stat we didn't keep: how many mailed-out ballots were returned through the postal system vs. our drop boxes.)

There's four voting plans available to most voters: the polls, mail, satellite sites, and in person at our office - which this year was actually drive-thru voting in our parking ramp. There's also "UOCAVA" voting, which stands for Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. People outside auditor's offices often call these "military" ballots, but a lot of overseas civilians get them too. In most years there are also "absentee team" ballots, sometimes called "nursing home" ballots. We had a tiny number of these, to hospital in-patients; I lumped them into in-person below.
Here's how voters in each party chose their voting plan. 

Party Overseas Mail In-Person Satellite total early Polls Total
Democratic 424 0.92% 23619 51.14% 10696 23.16% 4282 9.27% 39021 84.49% 7163 15.51% 46184
Republican 58 0.37% 4504 28.46% 2974 18.79% 1174 7.42% 8710 55.03% 7118 44.97% 15828
Libertarian 4 0.77% 87 16.70% 112 21.50% 47 9.02% 250 47.98% 271 52.02% 521
Green 1 0.66% 44 29.14% 33 21.85% 22 14.57% 100 66.23% 51 33.77% 151
No Party 180 0.84% 6515 30.31% 4192 19.50% 1917 8.92% 12804 59.57% 8689 40.43% 21493
Total 667 0.79% 34679 41.30% 18007 21.39% 7442 8.84% 60885 72.33% 23292 27.67% 84177

Democrats were much much more likely to vote by mail and much, much less likely to go to the polls.  Everyone was about equally likely to vote at a satellite or at our drive-thru. No partys (I really hate the word "independent") and Republicans were similar in behavior - less likely mail, more likely polls. Libertarians were the only people MORE likely to go to the polls than vote early,

Here's the vote totals, which we're more familiar with. This is also lower than the total turnout of 84,198. There were 347 presidential under-votes, which may seem hard to believe but is in the normal range. Sorry, Kanye, but I've combined the lower tier and the write-ins into an "other" category.

Votes Early Election Day Total
total 60672   23179   83851  
Biden 48664 80.21% 10513 45.36% 59177 70.57%
Trump 11024 18.10% 11901 51.16% 22925 27.23%
Libertarian 522 0.86% 442 1.90% 964 1.15%
Green 148 0.24% 65 0.28% 213 0.25%
Other/write in 314 0.52% 258 1.11% 572 0.68%
In my years here, Democrats have been more likely to vote early than Republicans, but this year the trend was especially exaggerated. There seemed to be intent and purpose to Republicans wanting to vote on Election Day. Even though about 3/4 of the vote was early, Trump got more votes on Election Day than early. He actually won Election Day. 
As I noted earlier, the big voting shift in Johnson County this cycle was voters moving from third parties to Biden. Of those who didn't, Election Day voters were twice as likely to vote Libertarian or Other Third Party than early voters.

Now I indulge in sheer speculation and try to figure out what the no partys did. There's no way to tell, of course, but I'll play with numbers and make some false assumptions: that all members of a party voted for their party's candidate, and that only No Party people did write ins or voted for miscellaneous candidates. Then I just subtracted the difference. 

Estimated No Party Votes Early Election Day Total
total 12574   8593   21167  
Biden 9630 76.59% 3363 39.14% 12993 61.38%
Trump 2310 18.37% 4787 55.71% 7097 33.53%
Libertarian 272 2.16% 171 1.99% 443 2.09%
Green 48 0.38% 14 0.16% 62 0.29%
Other/write in 314 2.50% 258 3.00% 572 2.70%

No party early voters voted much like the rest of the early voters, nearly four to one Biden, and just a little bit more third party. But the Election Day no party voters leaned about 5 points more Trump than the rest of election day voters. As we saw, the Election Day voters by party affiliation leaned disproportionately R as well. 

The Election Day no partys likely had a lot of weak voters or people who though COVID was Fake News, both groups that would lean Trump. End result was that no party overall was very blue by the standards of a normal Iowa place but a little redder than the standards of the People's Republic.

This really nails down my long time theory: No party voters are just like partisan voters, they just don't like checking the box for whatever reason, and once you get them in the booth they pretty much behave like partisans.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Caucuses Greatest Hits Version 5.0 - 2020 Edition

In a post I first wrote back in 2006 and have updated periodically. I've looked at and ranked all the caucus cycles back to 1976.  As for history and the caucuses themselves, a mixed bag.  Irrelevant nearly half the time, critical a little less often.

Not Worth The Airfare To Waterloo

21. 1984 and 2004 Republican. The Republican tradition was to hold no presidential vote at all in incumbent re-elect years.That tradition ended in 2020, not because of Trump's minor opponents but because state party leadership seemed to think not having a vote in 2020 would hurt the case for First in 2024. Ironically, this happened as other state Republican parties canceled their contests.

20. 1996 Democratic. The word went down from Des Moines to the Democratic county chairs: “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” Self-starters in a couple lefty college precincts elected a very small handful of Nader and Uncommitted protest delegates, but those results got swept under the rug. Clinton came out and campaigned the final weekend, largely to step on the GOP story (Actually Being President trumps winning the caucus), but it was in basketball arenas, not chat n’ chews.

18 (tie). 2012 Democratic.  As close to an unopposed caucus as possible short of “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” The state party went to bat for actually having an alignment, which Chicago didn't want. But without a live person as an Obama opponent (despite Bernie Sanders' suggestion), the dissenters were split between Uncommitted and crossing over for Ron Paul. In the end the Uncommitteds, mostly made up of folks allied with the simultaneous Occupy movement, made a lot of noise out of proportion to their 1.5% of the delegates. Rated up one notch because that 1.5% actually got honestly reported, not suppressed as in 1996.

18 (tie). 2020 Republican. Iowa Republicans broke with tradition in 2020, in part because they were concerned that with no actual vote they would put First at risk (this was before the 2020 Democrats removed all doubt). But even though they counted the votes against Trump, Bill Weld and Joe Walsh proved to be woefully ineffective even as protest vote placeholders.

17. 1992 Republican. The Pat Buchanan Brigade was looking like a serious threat to win New Hampshire - he ended up at 37.5% there - but the inside the Des Moines Beltway crowd stuck with the tradition of not having a vote in an incumbent year. That decision was a small win for George HW, and that no-vote decision was more important than the 2020 decision to vote. So this gets the highest rank of the de facto uncontested caucuses.

Ultimately Irrelevant

16. 1992 Democratic. Hometown boy Tom Harkin runs and wins big, though not as big as it looked because of some skilled realignment work at viability time. That 76% Harkin delegate count included a lot of stealth supporters of other candidates.

Paul Tsongas was already on the ground in Iowa when Harkin announced, but he quickly bailed. There were a couple feints from Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown but nothing serious. Everyone showed up for the cycle's lone cattle call, the then-Jefferson Jackson dinner, but between low interest and a blizzard the hall was half empty.

In the end, Iowa kept first place after `92 only because Tom Harkin was the only Bill Clinton rival who enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. The other also-rans could barely hide their obvious contempt for Clinton. (Kerrey and Brown probably wrote themselves in that November.)

The long term importance of the 1992 caucuses may be that Bill, and by extension Hillary, Clinton did not have to retail campaign in Iowa, and that had a ripple effect into 2008 and 2016.

15 (tie). 2020 Democratic. In the end, the importance of the 2020 Democratic caucuses will be that they were the last, but what about the cycle itself, in terms of the traditional momentum and winnowing role? 

The results problem killed the momentum but even early on it was clear there were two leaders. And in the end two winners.

The delegate count winner, Pete Buttigeig, was a flavor of the week fad who had little traction after Iowa and who at best will end up with a make-work administration role rather than the high level cabinet post he craved. He got his breakout from obscurity not from the caucus “win”, but from pre-Iowa polling and fundraising.

I don’t have an answer for the Buttigeig problem: someone who, despite being absolutely not ready for the White House, is a rising star stuck in an area where winning a higher race is difficult. But if our rhetoric is Fight Everywhere, he should try. Indiana Senator Todd Young is up in 2022.

The popular vote winner, Bernie Sanders, lost ground from his 2016 tie, as the Not Hillary voters he had to himself that year dispersed to the rest of the field.  Despite his strong core of support, he was most people's Anyone But choice and started losing contests as soon as voters consolidated behind the eventual winner.

(As much as I loathe Sanders, who as a non-Democrat should never have been allowed to participate in Democratic nominating contests, I consider him the real winner. We kept score two ways and I consider popular vote the more fair way to call the winner. He probably had more raw votes in 2016, too, but we didn’t keep score that way that year.)

The eventual president-elect finished a poor fourth, which in prior years would have a drop-out finish. In the end, Joe Biden was the real winner of the caucuses, because he got a mulligan on his poor results. By the time we figured it all out, South Carolina and Super Tuesday had happened and the train had left the station.

Not a single candidate quit based on the Iowa results. The winnowing happened before Iowans even caucused, on factors like debate qualification, fundraising and national polls. One of those winnowed-out before Iowa candidates, Kamala Harris, became the running mate.

So the caucus results had no real impact on the nomination outcome at all. It's like we never happened. And for all the “organizing” we did – this is NOT an attack on the organizers and volunteers - in the fall we wound up losing the state to Trump, losing a Senate race we had a shot at, losing two US House seats, and losing ground in the legislature.

14. 2000 Both. On the Democratic side Al Gore easily beat Bill Bradley in what was merely the first moment in the overall national dynamic; Dollar Bill made his stand on friendlier turf in New Hampshire and fell just short there, and that pretty much ended it. (Still mad: Anyone who thinks things were "rigged" against Sanders should have been a Bradley 2000 person. Basically the entire power structure of the party was behind Gore and the prevailing attitude was "how DARE Bradley 'challenge' him.")

On the Republican side it was like one of those boycott-era Olympics: W won but the toughest competitor, McCain, was a no-show playing a Screw Iowa strategy. The truly significant GOP event was the straw poll that winnowed out more candidates (E. Dole, Quayle, and Buchanan bolting to Reform) than the actual caucus (Orrin Hatch, as if that wasn’t obvious).  Comic relief: People who took Gary Bauer seriously, Alan Keyes in Michael Moore’s mosh pit.

Secondary event in nomination contest

13. 2016 Republican. Whichever contest was first would have narrowed a field that peaked at 17 candidates. The biggest event of the cycle was actually a non-event - the Ames Straw Poll that had been the dominant pre-caucus event from 1987 to 2011 was first moved out of Ames, then canceled entirely when the leading candidates refused to show up.

The field was down to a mere 12 by caucus night. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio, in that order, each took about a quarter of the vote, with the other nine splitting the remaining 25%. The immediate two past Iowa winners, Huckabee and Santorum, fizzled, and that effectively ended their campaigns.

Rand Paul failed to keep his father's coalition, because all of the "he's alternative, dude!" vote was caucusing for Bernie Sanders. The dudebro overlap between Ron/Rand Paul and Sanders supporters, which makes little ideological sense but is clearly a Thing, is a Ph.D. dissertation for someone.

Cruz's win turned out to be an anomaly and a relatively minor event. Cruz wasn't even Trump's final opposition - that turned out to be John Kasich, merely because he refused to quit.

12. 1980 Democratic. The incumbent won the first test of Kennedy-Carter, but that battle of giants was played out on a national, even global, stage and Iowa was a bit player.

11. 2008 Republican. Important to the dynamic of the contest, but not central to the result.

Mitt Romney was looking like the guy to beat in December 2007. Which Mike Huckabee did in January 2008, after first beating Sam Brownback at the straw poll to win the mantle of THE religious conservative candidate. Had Iowa Republicans gotten behind the Mitt, they may have headed off the chaos that was the GOP field in January. Instead, we proved that there was no there there for Fred Thompson, and that the Ron Paul Яэvoutionaries were noisy in disproportion to their actual numbers (but see 2012 below). But really, we just stirred the pot, and the decisive event was in Florida between two men with Screw Iowa Lite strategies, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

Our next contest was very similar, but the tiebreaker is that the Iowa winner actually won the nomination:

10. 1996 Republican. What might have been: Pat Buchanan was within 3% of Bob Dole, but the social conservatives in Cedar Rapids backed Alan Keyes instead; Keyes thus won the second biggest county. One minister at one mega-church makes a different choice, and we’d have had a major upset.

Some all too obvious field winnowing (Dick Lugar???) happens. Phil Gramm gets out too, but his real stumble was in Louisiana’s jump-the-starting-gun contest a week earlier. 

Comic relief: Easily the funniest caucus! Dole, genuinely witty in his non-Satan mode, Steve Forbes the android, Alan Keyes… but they all pale next to Morrie Taylor, the tire magnate who literally tried to buy a win one vote at a time. Failed miserably but looked like he had more fun than the rest put together.

9. 1988 Democratic. Other than Tom Harkin's favorite son run which doesn't really count, this is the only time from 1976 to 2016 that Iowa Democrats did not vote for the eventual nominee. The nomination contest came down to Dukakis vs. Jackson, neither of whose fortunes were affected by Iowa.

In `88 Al Gore, dirty Prince lyrics still ringing in his ears, was the first candidate to use the Screw Iowa strategy.  It's never worked (save for the Harkin year), but nevertheless Gore wound up outlasting the two Iowa leaders.

There's a story, long told by Paul Simon loyalists, that a county chair sat on his Simon-friendly results until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline, which mattered in the pre-internet era. Rules got changed after that so that results are reported direct from the precinct to the state without going through a county chair, but this one proved the winner-take-all-news theory that was prevalent at the time (and which was supposed to be the anchor of my aborted masters' thesis).

Comic relief: Gary Hart’s last minute return to the race, campaigning with his wife.

8. 2012 Republican. The real importance of the 2012 Republican caucuses was not its relatively small role in designating the nominee. That was always going to come down to Mitt vs. Not Mitt.  Rick Santorum never really got the bump from the win, because of the dead heat, the botched result announcement, and the recount that delayed the final result. And also because Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich on life support far too long,

No, the real importance was what happened to the Republican Party of Iowa after the presidential vote. The Romney and Santorum people both said "yay, we won," went home, and both in turn were right. The Ron Paul people stuck around, elected themselves as all the delegates and committee people, and took over the state party structure.

The consequences had a huge ripple effect through state, and even national, internal Republican politics for the next two years, until Terry Branstad, Jeff Kaufmann and the rest of the grownups took party control back in 2014 (the most important OFF-year caucus). This one may move up the charts depending on the long-term fate of the caucuses, and so may the next:

7. 2016 Democratic.  Iowa was a big deal - in the same way that the first post in an epic flame war that eventually breaks Godwin's Law is a big deal.

Had Hillary Clinton solidly beaten Bernie Sanders in Iowa, 2016 would have been over as fast as you can say "Bill Bradley" and the whole Sanders phenomenon would never have happened. Oh, he might have stayed on some ballots and accumulated a few votes. But without the dead heat in Iowa, and the money and attention that followed, he would have been an asterisk, like Dennis Kucinich playing out the string in the late states in 2004 after John Kerry had clinched and everyone else had quit.

I have long said, and the 2020 results confirmed, that half the Sanders vote was simply Not Hillary, and that alone would have gotten Martin O'Malley to 30 points in Iowa had Sanders not run. Indeed, that was probably O'Malley's whole strategy, to be the only person willing to run against Clinton.

The fact that Sanders was even allowed to run in 2016 without joining the Democratic Party was a decision by the DNC - ironically, headed at the time by the same Debbie Wasserman Schultz who supposedly "rigged" the nomination against Sanders. DWS's inability to take Sanders seriously as a threat to Clinton, and her under-estimation of Clinton's negatives, are just more signs of her ineptitude.

Sanders himself may have faded (from 49.9999% in Iowa on Caucus Night to about 25% in 2020) but his campaign mainstreamed a progressive stance that other candidates at lower levels are now seeing success with (in places very different than Iowa). The long range ranking of 2016 may move up if this turns out to be a permanent change.

Significant event in nomination contest

6. 1988 Republican. Pat Robertson pushes George HW into third place. Robertson was insignificant thereafter, but the blow made Bush go on a fight of his life attack against Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Dole took the bait and was goaded into “stop lying about my record.” This convinces HW that hard negative was the way to go. That road went through the flag factory and Willie Horton, and ended at the White House. Comic relief: Al Haig.

5. 1984 Democratic. Gary Hart barely squeaked past his old boss, George McGovern. But second, no matter how distant, was enough to make him the Not Mondale and propel him up about 40 points in eight days for a New Hampshire win, a brief but genuine shot at the nomination, and (pre-Donna Rice) 1988 front-runner status. The Right Stuff sank like Gus Grissom’s capsule, and you're an old timer if you catch that reference.

Decisive event in nomination contest

4. 2004 Democratic.

Iowa was the whole ball game in 2004. Nothing that happened after Iowa mattered nearly as much as what happened in Iowa.  The guy who won got the nomination, and the guy in second got VP.  And the guy in third?

The Dean Scream goes down as the single most memorable caucus moment, but everyone forgets The Scream was after The Much More Important Disappointing Third Place. (Which was helped by the most coordinated cross-campaign effort I ever saw, as the other candidates worked together to realign in whatever way hurt Dean the most.) After Dean had been the front-runner for months, Iowans got scared at the last minute - mostly thanks to Dick Gephardt, who went on a suicide attack that took them both out and set Gephardt up for reward in the Kerry Administration.

Made History

3. 1976 Democratic. This one made both Jimmy Carter and the caucuses themselves. Carter didn’t actually win this, you know. He was second to Uncommitted. But I know folks who still brag “Jimmy Carter slept on my couch.”

I’m torn about ranking a caucus that directly produced a president below one that didn't. But read on.

2. 1980 Republican. In the first true Iowa Republican caucus, obscure former ambassador, spy boss, and failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush shocked the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP, Ronald Reagan. This one win puts Poppy on the map and ultimately on the ticket (after the botched Ford “co-presidency” deal at the `80 convention).

So why rank this ahead of Jimmy Carter, especially since Bush Sr. lost that 1980 nomination? The ripple effect. No Iowa win = no Bush 41. And with no HW, do you REALLY think Bush 43 or 45 (please clap) would have made it on their own? 1976 made a president, but 1980 made a dynasty.

Number 1: 2008 Democratic. There's no question the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses created a president. Iowa was the honing ground for Barack Obama's message and appeal and ground game. We eliminated the entire second tier, and proved that voters in one of the whitest places in America would support a black candidate. Remember, a lot of African-American voters were sticking with Hillary Clinton before Iowa, because Obama "couldn't win." Iowa shattered that myth and the perception of Clinton's inevitability.

It's too soon to tell, and Trump's win blurred things, but the 2008 caucuses may have ushered in not just one president, but a whole era, a new alignment of states that ends the 1968 Nixon-Wallace southern-western coalition for good, at least at the presidential level.

2008 was a whole new map. As late as the first John Edwards campaign, people were sill seriously saying it was impossible to break the Republican "electoral college lock" without southern rural white male voters. Trump has since proven those voters are gone forever - maybe in the urban and exurban North as well.

But that old South has been replaced by the new South, driven by suburban voters who migrated from the North, women, and minorities. Florida has disappointed teh last two times, but Virginia is now solid blue, North Carolina is in play, Georgia flipped in 2020, and even Texas is on the horizon. Barack Obama fueled this alignment, which would not have been possible without that Iowa win.

The 1976 caucuses made one president, but his victory is a mere footnote to a Republican era, brought about by the intensity of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. The 1980 Republican caucuses made two presidents, but they followed the electoral footsteps of others.

How many presidents in an era? Obama wasn't able to transfer this alignment to an immediate successor, because some anchors of the old coalition fell in 2016 (Trump essentially drew three cards to an inside straight with his narrow Wisconsin-Michigan-Pennsylvania wins), but Biden seems to have partially restored and in some places expanded the Obama coalition. On the other hand, he slipped in others, most notably the rural Upper Midwest. Some of those rural Iowa Obama counties aren't ever coming back - but in the big picture Georgia and Arizona are a nice tradeoff.

If the 2008 caucuses ushered in an Obama Realignment, like the FDR Relignment or the Nixon-Wallace Realignment, they could lead to four or five presidents.It's a weaker case than it was a few years ago, but 2008 still deserves the number one spot.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Notes on Undervotes

Johnson County Numbers Part 3

Despite having the best numbers in the district by 14% above any other county, and with the recount still in progress, Johnson County is getting blamed for Rita Hart's heartbreakingly close (47 votes prior to to the ongoing recount) apparent loss.

Two items have been noted: 1) That Johnson was the only county in the district where Hart ran behind Joe Biden and 2) the under votes in the congressional race.

I've already explained most of the presidential vote-shifting pattern in prior posts:

  • While Donald Trump gained percentage points in other Iowa counties over 2016, he pulled an almost identical share in Johnson County, dropping 0.01%. 
  • We had ballpark of 1000 Never Trump Republican votes
  • Joe Biden's percentage gains here were due to 3/4 of the 2016 third party and write in vote shifting his way.

I've waited on voters for 23 years and there are a certain number who loudly proclaim "I only want to vote for president." And as hard as it is for activists to comprehend, folks have got a right to do that. Many, many more ask with a slight embarrassment "do I have to vote for everything?" or "if I skip some races does My Vote still count?" with "My Vote" clearly meaning "For President." Other voters feel, in all good conscience, that they don't want to vote in races they know little about. This pattern is strongest in campus precincts and in our trailer court dominated precincts.

In general, the lower on the ballot you go, the fewer votes you see. I've been a down ballot candidate in a presidential year, and it is next to impossible, even for a major leaguer like a US Senator, to break through the noise of a presidential race. Square or cube that when you have an attention hound like Donald Trump in the mix.

But in a race this close, you need the Johnson County numbers - that's why you're reading this, right? Just exactly how many people are skipping contests here in the People's Republic? Let's look back at the last four presidential cycles. (For statistical purposes I'm including the much less common over-votes, where voters mark more than one target and cancel themselves out, in with the under votes. Either way, it's a vote not cast in the race.)

I've chosen six races: first, the three federal races (there was no 2012 Senate contest). I chose sheriff as an example of an uncontested county-wide one party contest in all four cycles (auditor had a Democrat vs. independent contest in 2008). Last, I looked at the first and last judicial retention vote each year. That was not always the bottom of the ballot due to public measures, but those higher profile contests tend to break the pattern and draw more votes.

What we see is a clear pattern that consistently repeats itself, with minor variation, over the years.

Votes Cast 2008 2012 2016 2020
Total Voters 73,231 76,199 77,476 84,198
President 72,989 75,977 76,940 83,851
Senate 70,413 - 74,833 82,633
US Rep 69,586 72,518 74,189 80,291
Sheriff 51,966 54,507 59,182 65,180
First Judge 41,929 51,194 50,240 58,878
Last Judge 39,109 47,879 47,827 53,663
Undervotes 2008 2012 2016 2020
President -242 -222 -536 -347
Senate -2818 - -2643 -1565
US Rep -3645 -3681 -3287 -3907
Sheriff -21,265 -21,692 -18,294 -19,018
First Judge -31,302 -25,005 -27,236 -25,320
Last Judge -34,122 -28,320 -29,649 -30,535
Undervote % 2008 2012 2016 2020
President -0.33% -0.29% -0.69% -0.41%
Senate -3.85% - -3.41% -1.86%
US Rep -4.98% -4.83% -4.24% -4.64%
Sheriff -29.04% -28.47% -23.61% -22.59%
First Judge -42.74% -32.82% -35.15% -30.07%
Last Judge -46.60% -37.17% -38.27% -36.27%

For whatever reason, several hundred people vote in a presidential election and do not vote for president. Some unknown share of this is error, some of it is blank ballots, and some is just the stubbornness of "I don't like either of them." 

(Either? There are generally 8 to 10 presidential candidates listed on Iowa's ballot, covering every niche from tankie to militia. Although this year, for the first time since 1956, we had no candidate on the ballot with the word "Socialist" in their party - since of course Joe Biden was the Socialist in the race 🤣) 

Note that the presidential under vote is highest in 2016, when both Trump and Clinton had high negatives; that year also saw by far the highest write-in vote for president at nearly 1000.

There's also some number of people who skip races where their party has no candidate, which is common in the Democrat-dominated courthouse races in Johnson County. The sheriff under vote looks slightly higher in 2008 and 2012, where Obama may have drawn more president-only voters who skipped the courthouse contests. The under vote is down a bit in 2020, as the seat was open and Democratic nominee Brad Kunkel had won a high profile primary campaign. In contrast, predecessor Lonny Pulkrabek had no opposition at all the previous three cycles, after winning a contested primary and general election in 2004.

One thing I see here: the end of straight ticket voting after 2016 does not seem to have had as big an impact as expected. People who were partisan enough to mark that straight ticket target, and it was close to a third of all Johnson County voters, are now just as inclined to work their way down the ballot and mark every contest. So eliminating the straight ticket merely serves as punishment for people who have physical difficulty marking the ballot.

You see a definite change in judicial voting patterns after the 2010 defeat of three supreme court justices who backed the marriage equality ruling. Under votes dropped from nearly half to closer to a third. Anecdotally, I hear many more voters saying they want to wait to return mailed ballots so they can "study" (read: "party ID") "the judges."

So that covers the low profile down ballot contests. Let's bounce back up to the top. 

The 2008 Senate race between Tom Harkin and Some Dude Christopher Reed saw a slightly higher under vote because it was seen as non-competitive. The 2016 Grassley-Judge race was not very competitive either, but Patty Judge was at least a well known former statewide official, and Johnson County was the one county she won.

But we see a definite drop in under votes in the Senate race this year. For a brief moment this looked like the pivotal Senate race for control, and Ernst and Greenfield dominated airwaves for months. In the end, all the money pushed maybe a couple thousand more people in our county to mark that race.

The open seat 2nd CD race is high profile NOW, now that it's the closest congressional race in the nation since 1994. But on the October airwaves, it was just a little less prominent than Ernst-Greenfield, and, crucially, it saw just a little less interest.

But that's normal.

What we see looking back over four presidential cycles is a remarkable consistency. In three cycles the under vote lands in a very narrow range between 4.64% and 4.98%. The fourth cycle, 2016, is barely an outlier at 4.24%. 

My theory there is that Christopher Peters, the 2016 libertarian-identified Republican challenger, picked up some Libertarian presidential voters who were under-voters in the other three cycles. In 2008, 2012 and 2020 the Republicans were seen as more mainstream, and there was no big-L Libertarian on the ballot in any of these four US House contests. Generally the Iowa Libertarians have a Senate candidate (alive or dead) and that explains part of the drop from Senate to US House over the years. Other third parties, in contrast, usually contest just the presidential race.

In short, Johnson County voted in the congressional race pretty much the same as it has for some time, with 4 to 5% of voters skipping the race. The professionals working this race would or should have seen these past patterns and accounted for them. I'm not sure what more could have been done to lower that under vote to the Senate race level, other than throwing several tens of millions more at us like Greenfield and Ernst and every interest group in the country did.

So if you're blaming the county that voted 13 to 14 points better for the Democrat in all the top three races than any other county in the state, like we do every cycle, you're throwing the blame in the wrong direction.