Thursday, March 24, 2016

What Happened In Arizona: One Professional's Speculation

As I've been following the Maricopa Meltdown from Tuesday night's Arizona primary, I've been frustrated by the lack of in depth-geeky detail.

The big picture is easy. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. No longer under the constraints of the pre-clearance requirement, local officials cut the number of polling sites from 200 down to 60, and also seriously mis-under-estimated turnout.

But that big picture doesn't tell ME what I need to know. The details of elections are literally my life's work (at least for the last 18 years and probably for the next 16 to 20 till retirement) and my To Do List includes primary responsibility for the turnout estimates.

So I've dug for details and here's the impressions I have so far.

First of all, this is NOT part of the Grand Unifying Theory Anti Bernie Conspiracy. Is it inexcusable? Yes. Did it suppress the vote and deny people their rights? Of course. But the decision to close 70% of the polling places was made by a Republican courthouse official, weeks before it was clear that either party's nomination contest would still be competitive. Human error is a more reasonable explanation than conspiracy.

An election infrastructure is both big and temporary. We rely on hundreds of temporary poll workers and locations that are on loan, and the workload is compressed into a small amount of time.

Contrary to myth, we do NOT have one ballot for every registered voter in our elections, and we do NOT have enough workers to handle it if every registered voter to show up.  Because that never happens and that only comes close to happening in a presidential general election.

There is an inevitable amount of resource-wasting in election administration, but every election we are balancing Likely Scenario against Worst Case Scenario. Past turnout and behavior in similar elections are the most accurate indicators. We are prepped for something MORE than we expect, but at the high end of the range we expect.

And we have back up plans just in case. In my county our polling places check in at least four times a day: 9 AM, 11 AM, 3 PM, 6 PM. This serves two purposes. It feeds the media beast with information. More importantly, it gives us an alert. There are long-established turnout patterns in our county. By the 11 AM check in, we have a good sense if a site is at risk of running out of ballots or other supplies (or in need of more workers), and we can ship more out the door. I don't know if Maricopa County does something like this (they should) or if they were simply SO overwhelmed that they couldn't do anything about it.

Clearly, Maricopa was under-prepared. Here's some of my theories as to why.

It seems that the Arizona recorders and Secretary of State have been lobbying the legislature to dump the primary and go to either a caucus or a party-run primary. The issue is money and the argument is "it's the party's nomination process so the parties should pay." (Which, with the caucuses, is what Iowa does.)

There's a case to be made for that, and I suppose you could bill the parties for a primary the way Iowa counties bill school districts and cities for their elections. But billing the parties, or making them run the primary themselves, is not the law in Arizona yet.

This may be part of why the Maricopa recorder cut sites. If the attitude is, "we shouldn't have to pay for the parties' nomination contests," she may have been trying to either send a message or be passive aggressive about it. I'm going to prepare for what my budget can afford.

The polling site cuts in Maricopa, from 200 to 60, were only possible because the Supreme Court overturned the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act. Last presidential cycle, the county recorder would have needed Justice Department permission to make the cuts. That's not saying the intent in cutting polling sites was racially motivated. The impact certainly was, as the cuts were heavier in Hispanic areas. Given the polling and results in other states, that may have hurt Hillary more than Bernie, but I'm not here to argue that one.

As bad as it is that people didn't get to vote - that's ALWAYS bad - the uncast votes are almost certainly not enough to affect the 18 point margin Clinton had over Sanders, because most of the votes were cast early. Like many Western states (and like Johnson County) Arizona is a heavy early voting state. In most elections they see more votes early than on election day. They also have permanent absentee status. Check a box when you register, they mail you a ballot each election.

Early vote tends to be a leading indicator of election day votes. Officials know, or SHOULD know, the patterns of their communities. If I get X number of early votes, that probably means Y voters on Election Day.

But what happens when those ratios change?

That, I think, is what happened in Maricopa County. They closed early voting, saw X number of voters, and figured that was 90% of the total vote. (I'm just making up numbers; can't find the exact breakdown on the real ones.) Then it turned out to only be 70% of the vote because interest peaked late. So they got three times what they expected on election day - with three times FEWER voting sites.

Across the country, as the Democratic nomination race has progressed from state to state, we've seen similar patterns. Hillary starts off in a state with a big polling lead; as the campaign progresses to the state, Bernie closes the gap. State after state, we have also seen Sanders performing best with registered independents and with new voters.

So if the Bernie folks are madder, odds are more of them were affected. Not enough to close an 18 point gap, but enough to notice, especially if they think The Establishment is against them.

Arizona's voter registration deadline is 29 days before an election - one of the earlier deadlines in the country. I haven't been able to figure out if that is also the deadline for party affiliation changes; I think it is.

Experience has taught me that people are not always right about their own party affiliation. People who make a special trip into the election office are usually pretty confident. But then a few months later they go into the driver's license bureau, aren't in Political Mode, get asked to update their registration, and are feeling Independent that day.

Or they forget that they crossed over for a primary a few years back, and didn't realize that "asking for a Republican ballot" changed their affiliation. I've had people swear "I've been a Republican my whole life" even as I'm showing them the scanned record with their signature next to Democrat and their voting history with the last four Democratic primaries.

So forgive me if I take some of the claims I've heard from Arizona voters with a grain of salt - because I've heard them before and I know enough to not want to definitely judge unless I'm looking at the records.

Sure, clerical errors are possible; I've seen and made a few in my life. (I am good at my job. I am not perfect at my job.) What's NOT likely is massive and deliberate mis-entry. We don't have numbers on the party affiliation problems; we have anecdotal evidence from people who are - quite reasonably - upset. To me, random human error on the part of voters and workers is a more reasonable explanation than malpractice.

Another point of confusion here is the NAME of the election. Everyone in the national press calls this "the Arizona primary." Arizona does NOT call it the primary. It calls it the "presidential preference election." The "primary" is in August for state federal and courthouse stuff. Kind of like how we have a caucus for the presidential stuff and a June primary for the other stuff.

Actually, the better analogy may be between Iowa's partisan primary in June of even years, and a city primary which Iowa City sometimes has in October of odd years. You have to declare party for one but not the other, the voting hours are different, and some precincts don't participate in one of the two.

The Arizona PRIMARY is open to independents. The Arizona Presidential Preference Election is closed. You can't change on Election Day. You have to be registered with your party in advance, presumably by the 29 day voter registration deadline.

But I KNOW that people in Arizona asked about the "primary" when they meant the
"presidential preference election," because of the hundreds of people I talked to at my work who said "primary" when they clearly meant "caucus." From the Arizona Secretary of State site:
    I am not registered with a recognized party, can I still vote in the Primary Election?

        Yes. Arizona has an open primary law that allows any voter who is registered as independent to cast a ballot for one of the officially recognized political parties. The Primary Election is not the same as a Presidential Preference Election, while an independent voter may cast a ballot in a Primary Election, only voters who are registered with a recognized party may cast a ballot at the Presidential Preference Election.
18 1/2 years of experience tells me: If it can be misunderstood, it will be.

Arizona's early voting period runs three weeks, from 27 days to 11 days before the election. So there's a ten day window when voting is closed. Again, data from other states shows that Bernie peaks late and Bernie attracts independents.

So I can see a lot of people Feeling The Bern (for the record I HATE that that phrase has become a thing; candidate preferences aside it just is nails on chalkboard to my sense of language) in the last week, getting misinformed "oh, yeah, independents can vote in the primary," standing in a line that's too long because the local elected official thought most of the vote was already in and she's kind of pissed to begin with because she doesn't think she should be paying for this.

So you've been in line for forever, you finally get to the front, and you get a provisional ballot.

A provisional ballot is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. Iowa has had them for a very long time. Many states did not. Florida did not in 2000, so everyone who got canceled because some OTHER dude named Juan Corona was a serial killer just got a letter after the election saying "sorry, our bad" without even getting a CHANCE to vote. Provisional ballots are now required in all states under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, and they're one of the better things in that law.

With a provisional ballot, the office can go back after the fact, check out the story, and try to count your vote. Since Iowa passed election day voter registration in 2008, most Iowa provisional voters are people who lost or never got their mailed ballot, and the process consists of checking and making sure we didn't get and count the mailed ballot.

The specific Arizona problem, provisional ballots for party affiliation questions, would not be applicable in Iowa. I'm not sure the timeline or the details in that state, but the way it's supposed to work is they review the ballot, see if the person was properly registered with the party, and count the ones they can.

Of course, a lot of things didn't go the way they were supposed to.

People who insist on voting provisional ballots at the wrong polling place don't get counted. That wasn't an issue in Arizona because they were using "vote centers," a trend in elections where multiple precincts vote at one site and you can choose which site to vote at. Iowa allows vote centers for local elections, but not primary or general elections.

One of the problems with vote centers, ESPECIALLY if you're doing it for the first time as Maricopa was Tuesday, is trying to predict how many people will chose which location. And for voters, there are anecdotal stories of the checkout line problem: bouncing from one site to the other looking for the shorter line.

None of these explanations, none of this speculation, is in ANY way meant to excuse what happened in metro Phoenix this week. It's just one professional's understanding of how this stuff works and how it could have gone so wrong.

How do we fix it? A really good question, and I have a strong bias but I think we start by talking to people who do it WELL.

HAVA passed in late 2002 simply because it was the one bill available on the shelf to Fix What Went Wrong In Florida. The people who drafted it were congressional staffers, not election administrators. The same is true of the other major recent federal law affecting election administration, the Motor Voter act of 1993.

A former co-worker attended a conference on HAVA soon after it passed and was talking with the legislative staffer who worked on it. The man could not conceive that a person would have a driver's license in one state yet want to register to vote in another - because he didn't stop to think about a college town with 10,000 plus out of state students.

And because Motor Voter makes it next to impossible to cancel a registration, we have a 46 year old graduate who last voted in 1992 still registered at a sorority house. (No, it's not the house mom.) And we have tearful adult children begging us to take Mom who has Alzheimers and has not voted in ten years off the rolls, and we can't without Mom's own signature, and she can't sign her name anymore.

The point is, there are always unintended consequences. So if the Feds are going to draft a law that tells local election administrators how many ballots to order and how many workers to hire, they need to use the right metrics and they need to get input from actual election administrators. Otherwise my county will have two dozen workers sitting on a campus precinct for a June primary to wait on five voters all day.

So fine, you say, let's do that? Democracy is worth it? OK, but then you also get into the issue of worker retention. Election workers have the downside of both paid staff (cost) and volunteers (people can quit when they want.) How many of those two dozen workers who waited on five voters all day will quit before November when you really need them?

So think this stuff thorough everyone, and ask people like me some questions. And thanks for reading this far. 

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