Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Good Intentions, Bad Addresses

One of the great ironies in my life is that I dropped out of grad school, to sign on with a political campaign, in part because I didn't want to spend years on a dissertation to become the world's expert on the head of a pin. Yet my political and journalistic role has evolved, over two decades of work, into something very much like... the world's expert on the head of a pin.(And "District of the Day" approached dissertation length.)

It's the point in the election cycle where I get tunnel vision. I can barely tell you anything about national polls, I'm only tuned into the debates because I was specifically asked to. But boy, do I know a lot of details about early voting.

The irregularities that some of our more zealous self-appointed upright citizens want to label "fraud" almost entirely come down to simple human error. Even the handful of cases unearthed and prosecuted in recent weeks, interesting timing that, are explained by the "perps" as "I thought it was OK."

Anyone who is reading a state-level political blogger is by definition a political obsessive. Put yourself in the shoes of a good-intentioned and eligible voter who deals with this election stuff not as a career or a lifestyle, but once every two or four years. Or a 19 year old working through this for the first time.

Over the weekend, the New York Times looked at the vote by mail fail rate:
Yet votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show. Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting. 
In 2008, Minnesota officials rejected 12,000 absentee ballots, about 4 percent of all such votes, for the myriad reasons that make voting by mail far less reliable than voting in person. The absentee ballot itself could be blamed for some of the problems. It had to be enclosed in envelopes containing various information and signatures

Absentee ballots have been rejected in Minnesota and elsewhere for countless reasons. Signatures from older people, sloppy writers or stroke victims may not match those on file. The envelopes and forms may not have been configured in the right sequence. People may have moved, and addresses may not match.  The mail may be late.  

It's one of the reasons I recommend in-person early voting, at auditor's offices or satellite sites. Maybe I should have said that before 14,000 ballots (and counting) were mailed out in Johnson County. But of course some people are actually gone, or shut in, or just prefer voting at home.

If you choose to vote early in person, there's someone there to walk you through the process who has done it hundreds or thousands of times, not once or twice. The process isn't hard, but it's not always intuitive. "I forgot to put my ballot in the secrecy folder so I opened my envelope up and re-sealed it." Not putting the ballot in the secrecy folder is no big. But opening and re-sealing your envelope? That's a "your vote won't count unless you fix it" mistake.

Iowa law changed in 2007, and now when the mail arrives, auditors are allowed/required to open the outer ("return carrier") envelope and look at the envelope that you are supposed to fill out and sign (the "affidavit envelope" which the ballots stay sealed in until the election day counting board meets). This double-check helps reduce the invalid rate. But it's still an extra trip or a second round trip in the mail.

Some of the problems are more complex but just as innocent. Mobility is a huge issue, especially in my college town. People move for unexpected reasons at unexpected times. You could be bunked up five deep in a dorm lounge and suddenly get an open room across campus. We just had a frat shut down and all the guys in the house, innocent or guilty, got evicted. That romantic living arrangement could end in a broken lease and a broken heart. Or, worse, a broken nose and a restraining order.

The commonality in any of these traumatic moves? The LAST thing on your mind is going to be that absentee ballot request form you signed a few weeks or months ago with your old address on it. And even if you're a Solid Upstanding Married Reproduced Property Tax Payer who just closed on the dream house, you could get electorally messed up in the move.

I've heard the attitude expressed that, and I'm close to verbatim here, "If someone can't do the paperwork right, their vote shouldn't count." Let me say that again: "If someone can't do the paperwork right, their vote shouldn't count."

I saw my friend John Stimmel today, coming in to vote. I hope he doesn't mind if I talk about him. Many people know John and his story was front page news last year. John has developmental disabilities and he suffered for many years in an institution before winning his freedom. If you know him well you can tell he still feels some of that pain of all those years of having his rights deprived. But he's an inspiration and a joy to know. He has a job, his own place, works hard, pays taxes. He knows what his rights are and knows what he believes. Things like paperwork are hard for John and he always has someone with him to help him vote, to make sure he does it all right and those strong beliefs of his count.

"If someone can't do the paperwork right, their vote shouldn't count." Really. And I'm not talking about someone with what we'd call "special needs" anymore. I'm talking about average people with good intentions trying to navigate an unfamiliar and slightly legalese process on their own, in order to access a basic human right.

Good intentions. What are your intentions: to help people get it right? Or to hang them up on the technicalities?

1 comment:

Six Weeks, Six Votes said...

I read that same NYT article and wondered if perhaps the Obama's campaign's obsession with absentee voting in Iowa was misplaced.

I guess they reason that the rate of spoiled absentee mail votes will be lower than the flake rate of people who say they'll vote in person but never get around to it.

I enjoy your well-produced blog and write my own at