Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Benign Neglect Won't Fly In Secretary of State Race

Great political theater yesterday at state senate hearings, where Matt Schultz was grilled on his office's problems with felony lists that left (at least) three legitimate voters disenfranchised in the last presidential election. You could smell the schadenfruede in the Twitter feed (Kathy Obradovich captured it best).

Matt McCoy, who opted out of running for the same congressional seat Schultz is now seeking, summed it up best: “You’re using (Federal Help America Vote Act) money for the DCI investigations,” McCoy said. “I’d say it’s better spent getting the right technology implemented in your office.”

Schultz for his part doubled down, blamed Democratic predecessors Chet Culver and Mike Mauro, and argued that the Senate state government committee - read that as "Democrats" - did not take voter fraud seriously enough.

And that really tells the story. Schultz was elected as a byproduct of a wave year, a wave caused by national impatience with an economy that was recovering surely but too slowly, and exacerbated by state frustration with a governor who even many in his own party thought was the Peter Principle incarnate. Yet in his heart of hearts, Schultz truly believes he was elected to stop "voter fraud" and bring photo ID to Iowa's polling places.

Democrat Brad Anderson says his number one goal is making Iowa the highest turnout state in the nation. It'll be refreshing to have a Secretary of State again who believes the mail job is helping people vote, not keeping them from voting.

Now I know Anderson isn't running against Schultz any more. He's running against Paul Pate. Pate's done the job before. He wasn't the best Secretary of State - that would be Mauro. But he was better than Schultz, if I can set the bar that low. He treated the job with the kind of benign neglect most people show toward a stepping-stone office as he prepared to run for governor, unsuccessfully, after one term.

But Pate's 1994 to 1998 term is ancient history in election administration. That was the the dark ages, before the hanging chads. It was also ancient history to the politics of election administration, before there really was such a thing as a politics of election administration, before gaming the system became part of the game.

Pate didn't play those kinds of games in his term. But back then, no one did. There was no mad rush in early 1995 to change election rules and lock in the Republican gains of 1994, the way there was after 2010. There was no wave of mid-decade re-gerrymandering in 1995, the way there was in 2005 in Texas and Georgia. Even term limits, the cure-all of 1990 and an issue Schultz is trying to revive, had fizzled out by 1995.

In Iowa, Republicans had the trifecta of House, Senate and Branstad in 1997-1998. Full control of state government. They didn't dismantle our best in the nation fair redistricting system. They didn't push back registration deadlines from our reasonable 10 days (not as good as the same day registration we have now, but among the best for states without it.) They didn't shorten early voting from the generous 40 days we had and still have. They didn't shut down satellite voting.

There were a couple bills, sure. Relatively mild by today's standards: pushing the registration deadline back to 20 days, limiting satellite voting to public sites and excluding stores. But those were only a priority for a handful of legislators. Most Republicans, though, thought it was OK to play by the rules within the electoral system we had.

Would the 2015 edition of the Iowa Republican Party do the same with a trifecta?

Terry Branstad's never been a True Believer in this stuff. He barely lifted a finger for Schultz and gave Mike Mauro a job. Branstad's always had a If You Can't Beat `Em Join `Em approach to Democratic early vote drives, running excellent programs in the 1990s and again in 2010.

But if a dream bill loaded up with ID and killing election day registration and early voting passed a Republican controlled House and Senate, he sure wouldn't veto it.

Jack Hatch would. With majorities behind them, Mike Gronstal and Mark Smith would kill it. Something to remember this fall all the way up and down the ballot.

No, Paul Pate had the job in another era, before "ballot integrity" was a Republican dog whistle, before Schultz became a base hero by playing a gotcha game of fraud prosecution where there was nothing more than confusion and mistakes.

In the Republican Party of 2014 a Secretary of State can't treat the job with benign neglect. The base demands more. Can Pate make a place for himself in the current, dysfunctional, Vander Ized, Paulified, Iowa Republican Party without fully embracing Schultz's agenda?

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