Friday, February 22, 2008

Absentee Votes Could Be Counted by Precinct

Absentee Votes Could Be Counted by Precinct

The second-biggest statistical secret in Iowa politics could be out in the open if a Linn County Republican’s bill passes the Legislature.

The biggest secret, of course, is the raw vote total from the Democratic caucuses. That’s still hush-hush. But the second-biggest mystery is how the absentee votes break out by precinct. Current Iowa law, drafted in an age when the only absentee voters were shut-ins, service people and expatriates, requires that all absentee ballots across a county be counted as a separate precinct. The law forbids auditors from releasing any breakdown below the county level.

But Iowa’s absentee voting rate has soared since 1990, when the law was changed to allow any voter to vote early for any or no reason. And as parties have targeted early voting, they’ve been starving for data. House File 2132, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, would direct auditors to count and report absentee ballots by precinct. This could affect not just election reporting, but the Iowa caucuses as well.

As early voting increased during the 1990s, it had an impact on caucus results. It wasn’t so much that the overall rate went up. The issue was that even within a county, absentee rates tend to vary sharply by precinct. Urban voters like the convenience of early voting, while in rural precincts, the social tradition of neighborhood election day voting is still alive. In Johnson County in 2004, absentee request rates by precinct ranged from 17 percent to nearly 57 percent.

The Democrats' delegate apportionment formula for caucuses was based on election results by precinct. But since absentees weren’t included, urban voters were in effect taking caucus delegates away from themselves by following the Democratic Party’s constant advice to vote early.

The Democrats addressed this in the late 1990s and modified the formula. But the new formula is based on the number of Democrats requesting absentees by precinct, since breaking out the actual absentee count by precinct is still illegal. Those requests are multiplied by a percentage, to account for independent and Republican absentee voters who voted Democratic. But even that assumes that non-Democrats are voting Democratic at the same rate across a whole county, and penalizes precincts where a lot of independents vote Democratic, such as student precincts.

The system of counting absentees by county also affects the appearance of results. The Democratic Party has made a stronger absentee effort in recent cycles. That leaves a disproportionate share of Republicans left to vote on Election Day, and makes it look like Republicans are “winning” more precincts because more Democrats are lumped into that one big absentee precinct per county.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, is chairing the subcommittee handling the bill. Her county, Johnson, had the highest absentee rate in the state in 2004, with more than 50 percent of voters requesting early ballots. Worth County was on the low end, with only a 14.6 percent absentee rate.

Mascher says the bill as amended would apply only to partisan primary and general elections. “The intent is to get a better tracking on the Democratic-ness or Republican-ness of any given precinct,” she said. “It helps us do a better job targeting races and candidates.”

Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, is also on the subcommittee and has a unique perspective as the former Wapello County auditor. “It’s just a tough thing for auditors to have to do, especially with the huge turnout this year and on-day registration,” she said. “They’ve also had changes in handling absentee ballots which will be time-consuming. We’re trying to figure out how to make it as easy as possible.”

Still, Gaskill said, there’s political interest in the bill. “Both parties are very interested, because so many more people are voting absentee,” she said. “They’re doing their work by precinct, and they can’t tell how effective they are.”

Gaskill said equipment may also effect implementation. “It was a lot easier with a central count system” where all ballots were brought into the courthouse and counted on one machine. The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 mandates that all election day ballots are counted at the precinct, to allow voters a chance to fix errors. Mascher says most equipment could handle the change, but implementation could be delayed past the 2008 presidential election. That would give auditors until the June 2010 primary.

Despite the political push to early voting, some small counties still have low absentee rates. Gaskill is concerned that ballot secrecy may be compromised in small precincts if only one or two people vote absentee. But Mascher says an amendment could waive the requirement for precincts with fewer than 10 absentee voters.

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