Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Schools Out? (For Voting)

Twin articles in twin newspapers - the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Des Moines Register - raise a question I hear often: Should schools be polling places?

For the few who don't know, I work for the Johnson County Auditor, so here's a little inside perspective the articles left out.

Under present law, schools and other public buildings are required to allow polling places. Laws can change. Laws can change so much that you don't even HAVE polling places. In Oregon, they just mail everyone a ballot. In other states voting is consolidated into a few large "vote centers."

The law also says schools and other public buildings are required to allow caucuses. Caucuses are not elections, they are meetings run by political parties. They also don't have the same child safety concerns, because they're held outside school hours. Caucus sites change a lot from year to year, depending on which party expects to have a busy season. Historically the parties work together well on this. In 2004, the Republicans were largely content to give Democrats the bigger rooms; Dems returned the favor in 2012.

Relatively few buildings are suitable to be polling places. They need to be in or at the worst very very near to the residential areas where the voters are. They need long-term stability, so Random Retail Space is a problem if the business closes or opens. They need parking. The hardest part, they need accessibility even above and beyond Americans with Disability Act standards.The hardest one, and the one that led to polling place changes in 2006, is parking. There has to be a van accessible handicapped space that - this is the tough part - does not require the voter to exit the vehicle into traffic.

That's why, despite a major remodeling to improve accessibility within the hall, we had to move Iowa City Precinct 5 from Burge Residence Hall to the UI Library. Yes, even though almost no voters in the precinct would drive to the polls, and even though the precinct's largest group of population is inside the building.

The other buildings that are most likely to have the combination of space, parking, handicapped accessibility, and location in or near residential areas are churches. In the People's Republic Of Johnson County at least that draws more complaints than schools. A church can't leave electioneering materials up, same as any other polling place. But if the pastor is loudly saying your marriage is a sin and an abomination on Sunday, do you really want to vote there Tuesday?

The polling place issue goes hand in hand with the precinct boundary issue. Precinct lines are done every 10 years and now can't be changed until the 2020 census. Legally, city councils and the county board of supervisors are in charge of their lines. As a practical matter, auditors are deeply involved.

I was on the reprecincting team in 2001 and 2011. Most of our precinct lines this decade are better than last decade, except on the far west side of Iowa City where a fourth precinct should have been added. (Important to remember: since reprecincting and the present discussion, Johnson County has had a change in auditors.)

The law has some exacting standards here, too. Precincts can't exceed 3500 in census population. That 3500 includes non-citizens and children. Below that 3500 the population standards are less exact than for legislative districts. We're allowed, for example, to look at growth and voter turnout patterns. By the end of the 2000s decade Johnson County's largest precinct in North Liberty had 34 times the voters of the smallest rural precinct. In 2011 we closed that gap by splitting the largest precincts, as required, and consolidating some of the smallest (over the objection of the former auditor). The largest precinct, Iowa City 19, is now just seven times the size of the smallest, rural Graham Township.

Sometimes the precinct lines lead to polling place decisions that don't seem to make sense. Why, for example, are there two polling places in the lovely but small city of Hills? Because a legislative district line chopped Hills off from the surrounding townships. That's another requirement of the law - we can't cross district lines. So that required a separate precinct for the city of Hills and another for rural Liberty and Pleasant Valley (one of the small rurals we consolidated). It's possible to have two precincts vote in one building, which we're considering in Hills and which we already do in North Liberty.

The precinct lines also cause issues when picking new polling places - because in many cases we worked around the existing long standing polling places. We had a lot of trouble in the 2000s decade in one precinct - which in 2007 became MY precinct - due to different facilities tossing us out. By decade's end we were in a far corner and would have been happier with very different lines.

Superintendent Steve Murley made it fairly clear in the Press-Citizen that the two main targets for moving are Lincoln (Iowa City 4) and Shimek (Iowa City 22). Those two happen to border each other on the Peninsula. They also happen to be the two where it's hardest to explain to a voter how to get there. Also note: the decision to move a polling place has nothing to do with the decision to keep a school open. If we wind up moving voting out of Lincoln or Hills it does not not NOT mean those schools are getting closed!

One more thing: Every election day I'm answering the Where Do I Vote question all day. A lot of people have a concept that you vote one place for "big" elections and another for "small" ones. Not quite. Assuming you don't move, you keep voting at the same place for all elections except school elections. The school districts get billed for their elections so they have the choice to combine precincts. Since the single biggest expense of elections is paying workers (no, they're not "volunteers," the law actually says you HAVE to pay them) the districts usually combine sites. As for the rest, you vote the same place for a low turnout city primary as you do for president.

This by no means answers every question. Travis Weipert and the rest of us are more than happy to take suggestions or answer questions. The precinct maps and polling places are available here.

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