Monday, November 03, 2008

Ballot challenges could shift election

Election Could Be Decided Monday

If John McCain is going to win Iowa, it will likely happen Monday.

And if Barack Obama is going to win Iowa, it's already happened. Depending on how you look at it, it happened in the past six weeks, or it happened starting two years ago.

Record early voting, election day voter registration, and ballot challenges may have a bigger impact on Iowa's seven electoral votes than Tuesday's election day voting.

Iowa has seen unprecedented levels of early voting since ballots became available Sept. 25. Through Saturday, 553,669 voters had voted early or requested mailed ballots, and 481,179 ballots had been returned. Democrats hold a 100,000 vote edge in requests. Early voting continues through Monday.

Absentee ballot boards start the work of processing these ballots Monday, opening envelopes and dealing with challenges to absentee ballots. That's the way McCain can improve his percentages today: through the Republican Party's program of "ballot integrity" or "vote suppression," depending on your perspective.

Republicans issued unprecedented challenges to absentee ballots in 2004, concentrating on urban and academic counties. In liberal Johnson County, over 2,000 ballots were challenged for mistakes such as bad addresses and missing signatures. Of the challenged and provisional ballots that were counted, John Kerry won 77 percent, better than any single election day precinct in the county.

Democrats took note, and the seeds of an Obama victory may have been planted two years ago when the Democrats took over the statehouse trifecta of governor, state House and state Senate. The Democratic majorities quickly passed election law changes for Governor Chet Culver to sign.

Most significantly, Iowa joined neighbors Wisconsin and Minnesota with election day voter registration. It's hard to tell what the impact will be, but states with election day registration have the highest turnout in the nation, and young people use the process most frequently. Both those trends would help Obama.

The Democratic legislature and Culver also tightened the laws on ballot challenges. Each challenge must be presented individually, rather than as a group or "blanket" challenge, and the law restricts challenges to a few items such as citizenship, felony status, and residence. A voter cannot be challenged for registering or changing address on election day. Challengers must provide name, address and phone number, and are subject to misdemeanor charges for frivolous challenges.

In another legal change, auditors are directed to open the outer, "return carrier" envelope of absentee ballots when they arrive in the mail and check the inner "affidavit envelope" for problems like missing signatures. The change gives voters a chance to fix their own mistakes. In 2004, the outer envelopes weren't opened till the day before the election.

The Democratic Party also adapted to the 2004 absentee challenges by doorknocking high-turnover areas like college towns later. That way, fewer voters would be likely to move after having requested a ballot from an old address, thus subjecting themselves to a potential challenge. Democrats also steered voters toward more in-person early voting and less voting by mail.

The trend toward heavier early voting may produce some anomalous precinct results. With so many Democrats out of the election day voting pool, Republicans may "win" some precincts they haven't before. Polk County saw the dynamic a few years back in a Democratic supervisor primary, where Gene Phillips won every election day precinct, but John Mauro had an exceptional early voting program and won 80 percent of the absentee vote to win the nomination. He lost the election day vote because his people had already voted.

That happened at the presidential level in 2004. John Kerry led the Iowa absentee vote by 70,000 votes, but Geirge W. Bush carried election day by 80,000 to win the state by 10,000.

Republicans may look at the election day results, compare them to the absentee vote, and cry foul. They may already be laying the groundwork for that with the national attention to problem voter registratiuons collected by the ACORN community organization. But in Iowa, we'll be able to look at the details. For the first time, absentee results will be released by precinct, rather than lumped into one county-wide "special precinct." Political numbers geeks will be able to look at absentee results and election day results side by side to check the effectiveness of their absentee ballot programs in minute detail.

Casual election watchers Tuesday night may also see Iowa's totals narrowing as the votes come in. Absentee totals, which will favor Democrats, tend to be released earlier. The election day precincts, which will lean Republican because Democrats disproportionately voted earlier, will trickle in later.

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