The 2007 legislative session, the first with Democratic control and a Democratic governor in 42 years, completed several major changes in election law. In the state's courthouses, 99 county auditors are looking at those changes and figuring out how to address them.
In the single-biggest change, Iowa joins neighbors Wisconsin and Minnesota in allowing Election Day voter registration. Same-day registration passed a Democratic-controlled Legislature in the 1980s, but was vetoed by the Republican governor at the time, Terry Branstad. Gov. Chet Culver signed House File 653 on April 4.
Under Iowa's new system, voters registering after the old deadline (10 days for primary and general elections, 11 days for other elections) would have to show identification and proof of their address such as utility bills or leases.
Democrat Jamie Fitzgerald is the new Polk County auditor. After serving as first deputy for 4 1/2 years, Fitzgerald took office in January when his predecessor, Mike Mauro, became secretary of state. "There have been numerous studies throughout the United States to ascertain why so few of our citizens participate in our election process," Fitzgerald said. "An often-cited factor for this dilemma includes making the voter registration and voting process seamless. Minnesota has had same-day registration for 30 years and has enjoyed higher participation rates amongst their citizens."
Republican Janine Sulzner, Jones County auditor since 1994, disagrees.
"Responsible voting, I would hope, requires thought on the part of the voter, and a 10-day period should not have been too much to ask. I don't know if there are enough safeguards available to protect against fraud with same-day voter registration."
"The forms of identification required will not be easily available," said Democrat Grant Veeder, Black Hawk County auditor since 1988. Registering fraudulently is a class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $750 to $7,500. Veeder calls that "a powerful deterrent" and notes that in Black Hawk County, several people were convicted and fined after the 2000 election either for voting twice or voting in spite of an active felony conviction.
How to adapt
Auditors are still adapting to the big changes same-day registration will bring. "We expect our precinct election officials will be processing more new registrants, but will be spending less time on the phone checking on registrations," said Veeder, whose county includes the University of Northern Iowa.
"Precinct officials have spent a lot of time, especially in precincts with large student populations, calling the Election Office to verify registrations," Veeder said. "Which way the trade-off will tip is hard to tell."
Fitzgerald said that Polk County is looking at a combination of increasing the number of poll workers in areas that historically have a higher rate of address turnover such as university and apartment areas and using technology to help direct voters to the proper polling location.
Though Jones county is much smaller and more rural than Polk or Black Hawk counties, Sulzner says poll workers who have heard about same-day registration are worried.
"They will bear the brunt of this change. I don't think anyone could envy our poll workers on Election Day, especially after these duties were added to their already hectic day. I have tried to calm their fears explaining that the additional work will likely take the place of the many provisional ballots they have been processing that were due to unregistered or improperly registered voters.
"The simple fact is that our poll workers don't perform these duties on a regular enough basis to remember how to deal with all the situations they are faced with on Election Day, and now we've added even more. Training can only do so much."
The election day registration law won't take effect until Jan. 1, 2008. Sulzner said that will be troublesome for this fall's school and city elections. "Voters are not going to get that message and think they can register on Election Day already this fall," she said. "Someone is going to have to do a major press campaign on this very issue."
Veeder says many students won't have the necessary proof of identity, even if they are aware of what they need ahead of time.
"Hopefully students will be educated in advance about their situation. We have asked the secretary of state's office to prepare informational literature for colleges and for political parties and organizations that will be running get-out-the-vote efforts on campuses.
"Ideally, voters and GOTV campaigns will realize that the best option is for the voter to register in advance for the election so that they will already be on the voter roster and probably won't need any identification at all."
Another option is for same-day registrants to have a voter who is already on that precinct's voter roster vouch for them. Fitzgerald notes that a pre-registered voter may only vouch for one same-day registrant in his or her precinct; in Minnesota people can vouch for up to 15 same-day registrants.
Along with the unsuccessful VOICE (Voter Owned Iowa Clean Elections) public campaign-finance bill, equipment issues generated the most discussion among activists. Senate File 369 requires a paper trail for touch-screen direct recorded electronic (DRE) machines, and calls for an eventual phase-out of those devices. The accessibility requirements of the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) eventually would be met by a ballot-marking device, such as the ES&S Automark, which allows a voter with visual disabilities to mark an optical scanned ballot.
Polk and Jones counties both use the Automark. "We have had incredible feedback about the convenience and ease of using these machines," said Fitzgerald. But Sulzner said using the device is very time-consuming, particularly for a general election with a long ballot. "I really think if the Legislature had to vote a general election ballot using the Automark, they would be quite less than impressed, and may be willing to re-evaluate their thoughts before they phase out touch screens altogether." Sulzner notes that even with the Automark, a visually impaired voter "still has to rely on the testing process and the integrity of the county auditor."
Sulzner said she chose the Automark over a touch screen as the accessibility device so that all votes would be marked on the same type of ballot. Veeder agreed with this advantage. Black Hawk County currently uses a DRE for the accessibility device, but Veeder says he is seriously considering moving to ballot-marking devices.
"The marking devices are now available for use with the Diebold optical scan system that we have had since 1995," said Veeder. "In addition to the trends in evidence in state and federal legislation, a blended system with ballot marking devices has the advantage of requiring vote tabulation from only one system, while our current blended system requires each precinct to tabulate vote totals from our optical scan machines separately from our DRE machines, and then uploading them separately by modem to the courthouse."
Voting Systems By County (Secretary of State; .pdf)
Increasing the Pool of Poll Workers
House File 618 makes high-school students eligible to become poll workers. Auditors applauded the move, though they said it will have limited impact. "I really want poll workers that I can rely on for more than one or two elections," said Sulzner.
The bill limits underage poll workers to a partial day, and Fitzgerald says this may limit his use of high-school students. "We do not split our Election Day shifts, and have had limited, if any, problems finding people who would like to serve."
Maintaining an adequate pool of poll workers is a chronic problem, said Veeder. "We are always looking for good reliable help."
"Civics education is a valuable side effect" of HF618, says Veeder, "but our first responsibility is to operate an efficient and accurate election that enfranchises all qualified voters."
Auditors saw House File 546, allowing voters registered with no party affiliation to work at the polls, as more significant, though they have had different experiences with this as a past barrier. "I really haven't had much problem with this," said Sulzner, "but having the option of using nonpartisan officials will be helpful." In contrast, Fitzgerald said Polk County has had to turn away many qualified and energetic potential poll workers because of the requirement that they had to be a member of one of the two recognized parties in Iowa. Veeder said he has seen some people refuse to work rather than choose a party. "But in our experience, people who are interested in working will more often agree to declare an affiliation."
Still, the need for more workers remains. Veeder says his office is contacting human resources director organizations to ask their members to start programs to give their workers paid time off to be poll workers, explaining that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has such a program. Sulzner suggests making poll worker duty similar to jury duty, with employers required to allow service and with equitable compensation.
Still on the Governor's desk
Two changes not yet signed into law were included in Senate File 601, an omnibus bill passed on the final day of the session.
One provision would require auditors to open the outer "return carrier" envelope of mailed absentee ballots in order to inspect the inner affidavit envelope for errors. While the affidavit envelopes, containing the ballots inside an additional secrecy folder, would not be opened until Election Day, auditors would notify voters of any mistakes that could keep their vote from being counted. Fitzgerald calls this "second-chance absentee voting" and likens it to Election Day voting that allows voters to re-mark their ballots if they have over-voted an office by marking more candidates than allowed. "It will reduce the number of angry voters who are told their ballots didn't count when it's too late to do anything about it," said Veeder.
Sulzner joins Veeder and Fitzgerald in recommending that the governor sign the bill, but said she has reservations that election staff may be accused of handling ballots inappropriately.
"I think we're all aware of the frequency with which voters don't seal their ballots inside the affidavit envelope at all, and I think we're asking for trouble once we get inside that outer envelope. Will we eventually be forced to hire a Democrat and Republican to jointly perform this task each day? And then have that session videotaped? I like the ability to help the voters through some of the unfortunate technical errors they make, but unfortunately we can't do everything for the voter, and there will be voters we won't be able to contact."
Another provision in the last-day bill, which has been the subject of veto rumors, would effectively eliminate the ballot courier program. After a 2002 incident in which Democratic Party staff forgot to return 44 Johnson County absentee ballots on Election Day, the 2004 Legislature passed the courier law requiring ballot "chasers" who pick up ballots to go through training, leave receipts with voters, and complete paperwork tracing the custody of ballots. The courier law failed to prevent a similar incident in Woodbury County in 2006.
"Couriers were established because of the perception that other people were voting for voters who requested absentee ballots," said Veeder, who supports the legislation. "We hadn't seen any significant evidence of this kind of abuse, and the kind that we most often suspect -- family members voting for other family members -- wasn't affected by the courier system."
Sulzner said she opposed the courier system from the beginning. "I think it put ballots in the hands of people who never should have had them, and made it more difficult for those who relied on trusted family members to deliver their ballots."
Fitzgerald said the law kept spouses from returning each other's ballots, noting the odd scenario that "they were able to mail the (spouse's) ballot to our office, but could not hand deliver it to us."
What Else and What's Left
Other issues that received less attention were still considered important by auditors. Veeder said House File 848 contained many technical items that auditors have been trying to get into law for several years. The bill's chief sponsor was Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, former Wapello County auditor. Sulzner was pleased that one provision of HF 848 allows voters in city or school elections in smaller districts that open their polls at noon to vote absentee at the auditor's office until 11 a.m. on Election Day. "I've had to turn people away for this very reason in the past, and it was quite unfortunate."
Sulzner says one problem not addressed by the recent legislative session is the lack of a first day to request an absentee ballot. She supports a return to the 70-day limit that was repealed before the 2004 presidential election:
"Too many voters don't remember signing the request in the summer when the door-to-door campaigners are coming through, and then when we send the ballot in September, they throw them away. Then our poll workers have to deal with additional issues when that voter shows up at the polls on Election Day."
Veeder would like to see future changes in the school election process. "School board elections have the lowest turnout of any regularly scheduled elections," he said. "If the terms were changed from three years to four years, then elections could be held every two years with the terms staggered, and school election costs could be cut in half." Veeder noted this change has been proposed in the past without success.