Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Election Laws

The first big Iowa legislative funnel is a week from Friday, so now's the last big chance to look at pending election law changes. (But always beware the "standings bill," the mist-pass end of session omnibus piece of sausage...)

With divided state government, major changes are off the table. The last big change, election day registration, happened during the first Democratic trifecta year, 2007. What the Democratic base wants, Terry Branstad and the Republican House will kill.  And what the Republican base wants, the Democratic Senate will kill.

So what we will get, if anything, is some consensus stuff.

That doesn't stop Republicans from trying. But House File 138, the repeal of election day registration, has just six House Republican cosponsors (Salmon, Heartsill, Gassman, Branhagen, Holt and Kooiker). 

Senate File 66 (sponsors, all GOP: Chelgren, Whitver, Schultz, Zaun) and corresponding House File 4 (sponsor: Republican Peter Cownie), the bill to eliminate straight ticket voting, may have a little more traction.  The Objective News Media, perpetuating the myth of the Pure Independent Voter Who Votes The Person Not The Party And Who No Longer Exists, hates straight tickets, and editorializes on the issue often.

I've always felt like political parties get a bum rap and are a valuable institution of democracy. In our polarized era, party affiliation is the single most valuable piece of info to know in a partisan race.  And why take away an option that a third of voters use?  Apparently, looking at the sponsors: because Republicans think they see a slight disadvantage.

Personally, I like the straight ticket because it's the only way to vote for a party. Little known fact: if you vote straight ticket, and then mark individual votes in a race, the individual votes over-ride the straight ticket for that race. (Confusing enough that it deserves a whole post.)  Doesn't mean much more than bragging rights, but that means something. Factoid: In Johnson County in 2008, the Greens got 143 straight tickets votes, but the Green presidential candidate got just 120 votes. That meant people were voting Green straight ticket to show their support for the party, but then crossing back over in the presidential race.

People are especially gun-shy about Green vs. Democrat in the presidential race for some reason.

Photo ID, of course, is the Republican Holy Grail.  But where former Secretary of State Matt Schultz was a true believer in this bill, successor Paul Pate seems relatively disinterested. Senate File 183 is being sponsored by Brad Zaun, but Mike Gronstal won't let this see the light of day.  (Is there any way we can embrace the word "Gronstalling" as a GOOD thing, the way we did "Obamacare?") 

But even photo ID's lead sponsor is more interested in other things.  Zaun is focused on Senate File 10, the primary runoff bill.  As we know, he had some experience with the issue. For those of you just tuning in: Zaun finished first in the 3rd CD congressional primary last June, but below the 35% required to win nomination outright.  So the nomination went to a convention.

Zaun led on every ballot except the last: Dirty little secret: While Zaun may have had the most votes, they was a large "anyone but Zaun" vote. And on the final ballot, inoffensive David Young, who finished last in the primary (not counting crazy Some Dude Joe Grandanette), consolidated that vote and was on the road to Congress.

Zaun promptly began talking about eliminating the conventions and going to a runoff election. The top two, four weeks later. The fact that he had to introduce the bill himself smacked of sore loser. You couldn't find one friend to run your bill for you? Gee, maybe that's why you lost that convention.

But it seems to have some life, which raises all sorts of logistical questions.

My preferred system for dealing with multi-dimensional contests is instant runoff ranked choice.But Iowa's voting equipment can't handle it, and there's not a critical mass of people demanding that yet.  (But there must be a significant number of Republicans grumbling to legislators about that 3rd CD primary...)

Two elections four weeks apart would be a big logistical headache for the people who have to manage it.  The time frame is such that you'd have to do a lot of just-in-case prep work lining up workers and locations.  The early voting window would be very narrow and basically unworkable for overseas voters. 

And there's the possibility for cross-party shenanigans. If you voted in the Know-Nothing primary for county supervisor, what's to keep you from voting in the Bull Moose Senate runoff?

So that's the bad stuff.  But there's some good ideas out there, too.

Senate Study Bill 1152, the electronic voter registration bill, is sponsored by the Senate State Government committee (Jeff Danielson, chair).  It seems to have some bipartisan support.  Only people with Iowa drivers licenses could participate, which had the ACLU grumbling, but the consensus seems to be that something that makes registration a lot easier for a lot of people is a good thing. (Would be more problematic here in Iowa City where many students have out of state licenses.)

Oregon is about to do that one better and automatically register every citizen with a license to vote.

Senate Study Bill 1173, which sets deadlines for receiving absentee ballots, is also sponsored by Senate State Government. This bill isn't positive, but at least clears up a nagging question.

Present law says absentee ballots must be received by auditors before the polls close OR, if received after election day, be postmarked by the day BEFORE the election.

The problem is with the late arrivals. For the last several years, the Post Office had not been routinely postmarking mail - especially mail delivered locally. Auditors have repeatedly raised this issue with postmasters, and been told Too Bad So Sad. It's very, very rare for countable ballots to arrive after election day anymore.

The best solution would be federal: require the Post Office to postmark the damn mail.  But that's a non-starter and in the meantime auditors need some clarity. “Absentee ballots must be received in the Auditors Office by the close of election day to be counted” is clear. (Military and overseas ballots are exceptions, both in the bill itself and under federal law.)

Senate File 69 (sponsor: Democrat Mary Jo Wilhelm) would have gotten some serious interest in Iowa City last simmer. Under current law, vacancies in city and county offices may be filled by appointment, but the public has the option to petition for a special election. Also, cities and counties can opt to go straight to an election.

However, school board vacancies are treated differently. There is no option for the public to petition for an election, and vacancies are meant to be filled by appointment. The only way a special election can happen is if the board deadlocks or fails to act.

There was a lot of debate over the definition of "deadlocks or fails to act" last summer in Iowa City, when board member Sally Hoelscher resigned. Some folks argued that the school board should deliberately NOT act in order to set up an election.

Wilhelm's bill would bring school boards in line with other offices, so the public could petition or the board could decide to go directly to an election.

There's a series of measures from Des Moines House Democrat Bruce Hunter, most of which are liberal wish-list bills.

House File 27 is the perennial Voter Owned Iowa Clean Elections (VOICE) public campaign finance bill. As I repeatedly argue, campaign finance is still an inside baseball issue. Those repeated rants at the Koch Brothers are not resonating with the general electorate yet, though it's starting to become a Democratic activist base issue. That's progress, but this issue is still at the education stage.  For my money (see what I did there) public finance is the way to go, but advocates still need to figure out how to answer the attack that it's "a taxpayer subsidy for politicians."

House File 48 would allow permanent vote by mail status. Check a box when you register, get a ballot every election. This would save countless hours of canvasser time, and the lives of many trees, doomed to be pulped into request forms, would be spared. But as long as it's seen as more beneficial to one party than the other it goes nowhere. Which is too bad because it would be popular, and Terry Branstad has long taken an if you can't beat them, join them approach to voting by mail. (More accurately based on last year's results: if you can't beat them, beat them - with their own playbook.)

House File 113 would let people request absentees on line. Relatively small compared to permanent absentee status, and doomed to the same fate.

Alone among Hunter's bills, House File 29 may have a chance. It would allow the smallest cities (under 200 population) to do their city elections by mail. That could save some pollworker costs, though not in my county because we have no cities that small.  And the impact on election day registration would be minimal, as these smallest cities tend to be very rural and the few remaining residents have been there forever. That question could be resolved by letting new people register and vote early at auditor's offices.

I hate when I come to the end and don't have an end so I need a tangent instead, a tangent that doesn't ever have a chance to circle back to the point. So, hey. Huey Lewis is playing the RAGBRAI opening party in Sioux City.  He deserved that Oscar in 1985 just for his one line in Back To The Future: "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud." But instead, they gave it to Lionel Richie. "I had a dream, I had an awesome dream." Name the movie without searching.  Hint: Cold War, which seems about as anachronistic now as 1955 dis then.

Speaking of awesome dreams, it's 2015, so the Cubs are due to win the World Series - but where's my hoverboard?

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