Monday, March 30, 2015

Shop Talk: Voter File Maintenance Mailings Not Sexy. But Are Important

tl;dr = If you get one of these sign it and send it back.


In the election administration business, you never know what people are going to think is a big deal and what people will look at and go meh.

I've written this story so many times and I'm really trying to sell it because it's really important. And I really really though the little detail "a 45 year old woman who last voted in 1992 is still registered at a sorority house" would be a mini-scandal.

But so far only the Coralville Courier (who does the public service of running my press releases as is) and the Press-Citizen have picked up on the Four Year No Activity voter maintenance mailing that went out late last week. Here's the official version; this is the rewrite with more color and flavor.

 Cancelling registrations in Iowa used to be easy. Maybe a little too easy. Four years without voting (or some other activity like a move), you were out. Most people still think that's the law.

Nope. That all changed with the Motor Voter law, which passed in 1993 and kicked in for January 1995. Under Motor Voter, no one can get cancelled just for not voting. For the last 20 years, everything has depended on the MAIL. Younger readers, that means US Postal Service snail mail.

Now, instead of just cancelling you after four years, we mail you a card as sort of a friendly reminder. It goes out every year about this this time; they hit mailboxes this past weekend.

A bunch of different things can happen at this point.  And depending on what those things are, we may have something to go on.

Never gets old.

If the cards get returned to sender, address unknown, we place the voter on "inactive" status.

Think of inactive status as preliminary cancellation, with a grace period. Voters stay inactive through the next two general elections.

So the process takes a long, long time. People who last voted in the 2010 21 Bar And Other Unimportant Stuff Like Governor election got sent a card last week, and if it gets Elvised back to us they don't get cancelled till early in 2019.

Inactive status has been around for 20 years and I've yet to meet a campaign field staffer who understands the concept. An inactive voter is NOT what they call in staffer speak a Weak Voting Dem. An inactive voter is someone where there's hard evidence that they have probably moved away.

Yet every cycle, staffers and the volunteers they're instructing waste countless, priceless crunch-time time chasing after voters who have almost certainly left the state

Most of the cards get Elvised back, but some get through. People who've moved can update their addresses. Which is good, but not straightforward.

I've you've moved within the county, you get updated. But a lot of people don't have that concept of "county." You would think that if you sent the election office a card updating your address from Coralville to Cedar Rapids, that would change your address.

WRONG. You get completely cancelled and aren't registered anywhere. (Thank God we have election day registration so you can fix something like this.)

We can also cancel people if we get word from another state that they registered there. (Within the state, counties just take voters away from each other on a statewide system.) But that depends on self-reporting. And it's not unheard of for young people to forget that they voted in their college town one time. (We actually had people who thought 21 Bar was a student government election.) The problem is also greater for women because they're more likely to change names.

If you sign a card for someone else, like a relative or a previous resident, we can't do anything more than inactivate the record. That's true even if you have power of attorney - which is specifically addressed and included in the law. Power of attorney is no good for anything to do with voting and elections.

If we send the card out and never hear back, we have to assume that you still live there and just aren't interested in voting. There are a few people like that. Not so much people who vote every other or third presidential election. More like truly apolitical people who vote in a school bond or tax related election every dozen years.

You ever heard of the law of unintended consequences? Motor Voter is one of those laws, and certain problems repeat themselves:
  • Real example. Junior is late 30s, last voted in late 90s. Still registered at parent's address.  Mailman keeps delivering cards. Law requires us to assume Junior still lives at home.  Mom and Dad can send the card back, but all we can do is inactivate. We have to get Junior, who now lives is a warmer state with more jobs, to sign for himself, and usually Mom and Dad care more about it.
  • Grandma is in the nursing home. She has occasional good days, but unfortunately they're getting more rare.  Daughter has power of attorney. That does no good. If Grandma can't understand the card and sign her name, there's nothing we can do till we get the obituary.
  • Suzy Sorority graduates. Four years later a big pile of cards for alumni shows up at the Delta Delta Delta Can I Help Ya Help Ya Help Ya house. Sally Sorority, the pledge in charge of sorting the mail, pitches them. I pre-emptively contact Greek life and the dorms when these mailings happen and they're extremely helpful. But it all comes down to that last link in the chain.
Which is why a 45 year old woman who last voted in 1992 is still registered. And there's a reason it's  1992. The people who last voted in 1990 got cancelled in late 1994, right before Motor Voter kicked in.

All this stuff is as frustrating to us election administrators as it is to any volunteer who's ever doorknocked a really bad list.  But it all depends on the voter's understanding and cooperation. So, help us out, OK?

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