Thursday, September 22, 2016

Spinning The Special: Merry Christmas, Scott County!

I have to admit: Deep as I am into election season, my first thoughts on learning that the special election to replace the late state senator Joe Seng would be December 27 were for my colleagues in the Scott County Auditor's Office. Thanks for ruining Christmas, Terry Branstad.

Greatest. Christmas Song. EVER.

Professional sympathy aside, it would be hard to pick a worse Tuesday than the one between Christmas and New Year's for voter attention and turnout.

That, of course, is the idea. Seng's district is solidly Democratic, but the State Senate is THE battle of the year in Iowa, even above and beyond the electoral votes. Technically, no one has a majority of the 50 member body now, with 25 Democrats, 23 Republicans, one independent who defected from the GOP, and a dead Democrat.

Strange things happen in low turnout special elections, and Branstad may figure a bad election date is his best bet. (Of course, if either party gets to 26 seats on November 8, it won't matter much.)

I actually thought Branstad would play it the other way and delay the election, to leave the seat open in hopes of having a brief working majority. You can do a lot of damage in just a few days, just ask Scott Walker.

Gaming the schedule is just one item on Branstad's naughty list. He also spun the reasoning and, in a bank shot, laid the blame on a Democrat, Scott County Auditor Roxana Moritz.
The Governor’s office said that Branstad considers November 8, 2016 to be the best date for the special election as it would coincide with the general election. They said it would ensure high voter turnout and would save the expense of having another election. The Iowa Code allows a county auditor to prevent a special election from taking place on the same day of the election if the county auditor believes their are undue difficulties administering both elections.

The Scott County Auditor, Roxanna Moritz, informed the Governor’s office that she believed a special election on November 8th would cause undue difficulties. Because of her objection and the six week blackout period surrounding a general election, the special election for Senate District 45 can occur no sooner than December and Branstad then chose Tuesday, December 27, 2016 as the date.
Note the careful wording. "Six week blackout period surrounding a general election." "The special election can occur no sooner than December." So you skip the next six Tuesdays after November 8, and the next Tuesday is December 27, right?

Nope. "Surrounding" means six specific weeks EITHER SIDE of November 8. October 18 and 25 and November 1, 15, 22 and 29. True, "the special election can occur no sooner than December..." December 6, which is already an available date for school districts to hold elections. Or December 13 or 20. Which leaves gaming the system as the only rationale for December 27.

The Scott County Auditor, Roxanna Moritz, informed the Governor’s office that she believed a special election on November 8th would cause undue difficulties.  

Seng died almost two whole months before the election! What's so hard?

Let me tell you what the work cycle is like through this stretch of time.

The last filing deadline for the November 8 election was August 31. The withdrawal  and objection deadline was September 6, the day after Labor Day. The sprint starts immediately after that.

By September 16, the date of Seng's death, the process of programming, printing, and testing ballots was already too far along logistically for a major change like adding a whole new contest, at least in our county and certainly in others. We start voting a week from today. The overseas ballots have to be in the mail by this Saturday - just 8 days after Seng's death. That's not even enough time to schedule the party nominating conventions.

(That may also be a reason Branstad wanted to push for November 8. Both of the two Democratic House members in Seng's district, Jim Lykam and Cindy Winckler, want to move across the rotunda. You can't be on the ballot for both jobs at the same time...)

So... couldn't you just have a separate ballot for that one race? Logistical nightmare. We tried to run two elections side by side once, back in 1992 when we had a school bond a month after the presidential. People were putting wrong ballots in wrong envelopes, screwing up BOTH votes.

I've thought all day and maybe I shouldn't touch this with a 39 and a half foot pole, but I'm going to say it anyway.

There is one way the election could have been held on November 8. That decision wasn't in Terry Branstad or Roxana Moritz's hands.

That decision was Joe Seng's.

I didn't know Joe Seng personally, though I trust my friends who say he was a great guy. I won't pretend: long time readers know I was not a political fan. I thought he had poor positions on choice and on agribusiness, and I resented his 2012 primary challenge from the right to my friend Dave Loebsack. Had I known him personally I might have been more forgiving, then and now.

Yes, Joe Seng battled bravely with cancer, fighting to represent Davenport till his dying day.  

But there's a flip side to that.

If I ever write my book, it's going to be about one of the great unsolved, and probably unsolvable, problems of politics: what to do with an official who doesn't know when it's time to step down, a leader in denial or even in cognitive decline. It's not a partisan problem or even a problem limited to government. I dealt with that very directly for a big chunk of my career. A lot of people I care about personally, and more importantly the public, suffered because someone refused to let go.

Most of the media didn't pick up on it, perhaps in deference. (Even I had the decency to wait a few days here.) But KWQC ran multiple stories about Seng's struggles with constituent service and communication, and in late July he was forced to surrender his veterinary license under a "settlement" that was clearly not fully on his own terms.

I can't determine at what point Seng's health reached the hospice level, whether it was before or after the ballot deadlines. But he had been very, very ill for a very, very long time, since well before his 2014 unopposed re-election.

Once it was clear the end was near, it would have been a last good act of public service for Joe Seng to have resigned with dignity on a date that would have allowed his successor to have been chosen on the presidential ballot. His reasons for not doing that are between him and God now, and I may be judging too much. But the consequences of his not doing so are now playing out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Winning, Not Petitions, The Real Barrier To Iowa City Initiatives

The last thing on the 2016 ballot in Iowa City is what I'm calling the Referendum Referendum: a meta measure to lower the number of signatures needed to pass other citizen initiatives under Iowa City's home rule charter.

The argument seems to be that the signature requirement itself is a major barrier to getting initiatives on the ballot and, ultimately, approved by the voters. I'm semi-agnostic on that, but a look at history shows that step one of getting on the ballot has been less of a problem than step two: getting voters to agree. Settle in for a deep dive; non-locals may wish to opt out.

Until recently, there WAS a problem with the signature process, but it was a problem separate from numbers. Virtually all civic petitions in Iowa require signers to be "eligible" electors, meaning old enough, citizens, non-felons, and living in the appropriate jurisdiction. Signatures are generally accepted at face value unless there are obvious flaws (a West Des Moines address on an Iowa City petition, for example), or if an opponent challenges them.

But the Iowa City initiative standard was "eligible" electors, which the city staff interpreted as actually registered to vote at your current address.  City staff spent countless hours reviewing petitions line by line against the voter rolls. If so much as an apartment or dorm room was off, the signature was stricken.
It openly targeted the most mobile voters: students. The procedure burdened petitioners by making them conduct voter registration drives alongside their petition drives. Not a bad thing in itself, but it slowed down each signature. And with early petition deadlines, long before the August 1 date when every lease in Iowa City turns over, they had to then go back and re-re-register everyone in the fall when it came time for the harder work of actually getting people to vote.

It was also obsolete. With Iowa's election day registration law of 2008, anyone who can prove their address at the polls and is an eligible elector is also a qualified elector.

That problem was resolved in the 2014-15 charter review, by switching the charter to the more reasonable "eligible" elector standard. It also made the deadlines a little more reasonable.

The trade-off for this was raising the NUMBER of signatures. The requirement before 2015 was 25% of the prior city election, which in practice ranged from about 1800 signatures to a prescribed max of 2500 - all with the harder "qualified" elector requirement.  In exchange for the easier "eligible" requirement, the number was raised to a minimum 3600 (or, if higher, 25% of the prior city election, but you'd have to be coming off a near-record turnout for that to kick in.)

My take was that it was a win on the principle of the thing, and that 3600 "eligible" names is about as heavy a lift as 2500 cross-checked "qualified" names. The backers of the Referendum Referendum disagree. Their proposed requirement would be 10% of the last city election, still with the easier "eligible" elector rules; the average range of that would be 700 to 1000 names. (I'm generalizing. Here's the turnout back to `89 if you want to do your own math.)

You could make a case for that... but it would be a stronger case if the landscappe were littered with failed petition drives. In my 26 years here, I know of only one effort that tried and failed to get the signatures: a badly organized medical marijuana effort in the mid-2000s. Everyone else that I know of has successfully qualified for the ballot: 13 times since 1977, so on average once every three or four years.

Two of those issues - the red light camera/drone issue of the early 2010s and the Nuclear Free Zone issue of the mid 80s - were approved by the city council without ever appearing on the ballot. Or, cynics said, in order to keep them off the ballot, as the city council old guard saw them as more symbolic than substantive. Easier just to put up the signs at the city limits. Otherwise those hippies might come out to vote for it and accidentally elect Karen Kubby while they're at it.

So 11 citizen initiated issues have appeared on the Iowa City ballot since the 1970s. The real barrier? Getting these measures approved by the voters.  Only two have ever passed, and one was overturned in a subsequent vote.

The first ever successful effort was 1997's infamous "Yes Means No" effort to stop the extension of First Avenue. Because the language was technically to "remove the First Avenue Extension along Hickory Hill Park from Fiscal Year 1998, and instead, include the First Avenue Extension in Fiscal Year 2002" (still with me?), you had to counter-intuitively vote Yes to stop the road and No to build the road. This has confused voters not just in that election but on every Yes or No ballot question ever since.

With some creative work (stop sign shaped YES signs included), the Yes side prevailed in an upset. But the measure only kicked the can down the road, and as soon as it was legally possible, the bulldoze and build old guard promptly put the road back on the plan. (The road was never the real issue. The real issue was opening up the area around Hickory Hill Park to development.)   

This prompted a second Yes Stop The Road petition, which landed on the 2000 presidential ballot. This time "No, Build The Road" prevailed.  I voted Yes both times but I drive on it anyway.

The only other citizen initiative to pass was the 2007 measure that established what is now called the Community Police Review Board. The issue had actually been petitioned six years earlier but had been stuck in court until being ordered onto the ballot right at the filing deadline. It passed easily, 72-28%.

The police review issue was overshadowed, of course, by the Big One: the first of three citizen initiated votes on the bar admission age.

I've written volumes on this18 year olds are adults, and should have full adult rights. Never budging on that one.  But that's not the point here. The point is: despite the different AGE results, 19 winning once and 21 twice, the citizen initiated Yes side lost all three votes.

People forget now, but that first vote in 2007 was an initiative to RAISE the bar admission age from 19 to 21. The votes weren't there on the council so Rick Dobyns, fresh off his 2005 city council loss, decided to petition for it. So it was Yes for 21, No for 19. It seemed like a slam dunk win... but in one of the biggest upsets in city history, and with the greatest campaign committee name ever, Student Health Initiative Taskforce, students actually VOTED in a non-presidential election and handed the issue a sound defeat, 58-42%.

Consider the sad political career of Rick Dobyns. Loses in 2005. Loses the bar election to the STUDENTS in 2007. Wins in 2011 against an opponent who refused to campaign. Loses in 2015.

Consider also the career of Matt Hayek, who campaigned in 2007 saying he wanted to let the voters decide the bar issue... then when the voters decided wrong (or was it that the wrong voters decided?) he wanted a do-over.

So early in 2010, a new council passed 21, and the bar owners went to work on their petition drive. They succeeded in their strategic goal; by my math they maximized the potential for the student vote in a governor cycle. But with a thumb on the scale from the University and the entire city establishment, with a culture war anti-student mindset in the townie community, and with zero campaign to non-students other than my own obviously ineffective 18 Is Adult rants, the petitioning side failed. It's written out of the history now, but it was a very narrow loss, only 52-48%.  

The third vote in 2013 was a half-assed effort by the bar owners to lower the age back to 19, and it lost two to one. Don't know why they even bothered. I never even got asked to SIGN the petition let alone pass any.

The other big citizen initiated effort of recent years was the public power vote of 2005 - which was under a separate section of state law and not covered by the city charter. Still, it was a thing that citizens petitioned for. That one got clobbered two to one, by a half-million dollar campaign (on a city ballot issue!) by Mid-American and by IBEW declaring it a labor solidarity issue. We knew that one was losing months out and it was the most miserable death march campaign I've ever been on.

Stepping back into the wayback machine for the others:
  • There were two rental property related issues back to back:  a 1977 "tenant-landlord ordinance" which failed narrowly and a 1983 vote on actual rent control which got clobbered.Would love a chance to vote on THAT one again...
  • A 1985 vote to change the city council district system failed; I could never find the actual wording and I've made my own proposal on that one.
  • And a 1989 vote that was technically to change a large zoning parcel but was really to stop Wal-Mart also failed. Just before my time, so I don't know if Vote Yes To Stop WalMart was confusing the way Vote Yes To Stop First Avenue was.
I've petitioned for stuff and it's hard work. But it's not prohibitively hard work, and without the added barrier of the "qualified elector" standard, it's easier work than actually getting people out to vote. Back in 2009 the Republicans got about 8000 signatures in less than two weeks to force a special election after Democrat Janelle Rettig was appointed to the Board of Supervisors.  But they got only half that many people to get out to vote for their candidate.

The very premise of the Referendum Referendum is a scenario I'm having trouble envisioning: an issue that is popular enough and a campaign that is organized enough to win, yet not organized enough to get the signatures. The track record says the signatures are the easy part.

I don't know how I'll vote yet, but I do wish the petitioners behind the Referendum Referendum had used the opportunity of a presidential election to work for a more substantive change or to, you know, elect some people. It would take some variation of a Weed Vote to get noticed over Hillary and Trump (not even 21 Bar Round 4 would do the trick).

Instead, the advocates will be making a big effort in a politically crowded and noisy environment to focus on a process issue that most people will fail to understand and in the end ignore. And in general, the default response to a ballot question you don't understand is No.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A Countertrend Inside A Countertrend

Johnson County, Iowa may be one of the worst possible vantage points for viewing the 2016 presidential election.

As the rest of the nation is trending bluer, recoiling in disgust at Donald Trump, Iowa with its heavily white and rural population is trending redder, reverting from the relatively solid Obama margins of 2008 and 2014 to the razor-close 2000 and 2004 contests.

And as the rest of Iowa is trending redder, the People's Republic, with its higher diversity and education levels, has been trending even MORE Democratic than its traditional best in the state margin.

As I noted in the aftermath of 2014, we're not just the bluest county in the state by a little. It's by a LOT. Race by race we were 13 to 15 points more Democratic than any other county in the state.

We're also, in the context of this election,  more different than the rest of our state than other liberal academic enclaves. Places like Ann Arbor, Madison, and Berkeley have other diverse, Democratic-trending, pro-sports size metro areas in their states. But without those majority-minority precincts where Hillary is at 93% and Trump is running FOURTH, we stand out a bit more.

And because we're so different, we have different needs and concerns than the rest of the country. What's helping in the Big Picture may not be helping here. Because Hillary Clinton is not really running against Donald Trump here.

If you look back, you'll see that the Johnson County GOP over/under bar for presidential tickets in recent decades is around 30%. W was at 34 and 35 in his two runs, and won Iowa in 2004, the only Republican win since Reagan `84. Romney maintained minimal dignity at 31%, but Bob Dole was at 29 and McCain only managed 28%. Bush 41 was at 35% in his win and 27% in his loss.

Given the unique nature of his candidacy, Donald Trump would be doing very, very well to get that 27%. I'm betting a beret that he's closer to 25. But that's only part of the story.

Because Hillary Clinton is not running against TRUMP in Johnson County. She's running against Gary Johnson and Jill Stein and not voting at all and a blank space baby and I'll write your name.

Don't encourage them, Taylor.

It's clear that Brooklyn has done the math and determined that Clinton's path to national victory relies more on Never Trump Republicans and independents than it does on disgruntled Sanders supporters. So that's the strategy - but it may hurt the margin here.

In the big picture, it makes sense for Clinton to tout those Never Trump endorsements (thank GOD that Henry Kissinger took the hint, though, and agreed not to make an endorsement) and have the likes of Meg Whitman out on the trail. But it probably hurts her margins here, as the self-righteous can point to it, pretend The Parties Are The Same, and feel smug while casting a Vote Of Conscience.

Which Noam Chomsky - THERE'S a great lefty name from my own grad school days - argues convincingly against in eight bullet points:
"...cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing."
2016 isn't quite a three-way contest like 1980 or 1992. It's more of a two and a half way contest like 1996 or 2000, with the third parties getting more than an asterisk but less than double digits.

It's dangerous to go TOO far back, but it's worth noting that in Johnson County, John Anderson in 1980 ran stronger than Ross Perot in 1992. That factoid still rings true, both in terms of style and in terms of our ideological inconsistency. We don't like lowbrow folks like Trump and Perot and George Wallace, but we respond well to liberal style despite iffy substance.

2000 is of course the example everyone is pointing to this year, but remember: disappointed Bernie kids only know that as a thing from a history book, and not even a BIG thing because it's all mixed in with chads and butterfly ballots.

Ralph Nader scored 6.2% in Johnson County in 2000, and rather embarrassingly pushed Bush into THIRD place in one precinct. But in the aftermath of Florida, the bottom fell out for Nader and he was a smidge below 0.5 in `04, and the various left candidates combined have stayed around that level since.

At least Ralph Nader accomplished some stuff before going on to the electoral infamy.

Yes, I know "Unsafe At Any Speed" was the Corvair not the Pinto. Still funny.

The lefties have a significantly weaker standard bearer this time. Jill Stein exudes a definite Not Ready For Prime Time quality with her pandering to anti-vaxxers and fueling of conspiracy theories.

The more significant third party contender, even in Johnson County, is Libertarian Gary Johnson, who polled 1.1% here in 2012 to equal the party's best prior showing in 1980.

The under told story of this entire election is how the Bernie Sanders phenomenon completely wiped out the Rand Paul campaign. It seems counter-intuitive to imagine people switching from libertarianism to socialism and back to libertarianism, until you realize that the core appeal of Sanders wasn't socialism, it was pacifism. It was foreign policy non-interventionism.

Look at the cluster of privacy and surveillance issues. Look at the number of debate and speech references to Clinton's Iraq war vote. Look at how the most enthusiastic jeering at the national convention was directed at military figures and was a chant of "NO MORE WAR." Not "No Iraq War," not "No Afghanistan war." No more war. Period. (That probably tacitly includes the drug war, too.)

So folks who signed up with Bernie for free tuition and campaign finance reform and a $15 minimum wage should look long and hard at where Johnson is on those issues.

Some people won't vote at all, of course, something I literally can't understand. The traditional early indicator, absentee requests, is way way down from 2012, a fact confirmed from other counties. The Democratic field operation, which is what drives those numbers here, began much later than usual. Some of that may have been the longer than necessary conclusion to the nomination season, but it now feels like a strategic decision at the Brooklyn level to do things later. So the jury is still out on where turnout will land and how many people will skip out. (Among those who DO vote, historically about 0.25 to 0.5% skip the presidential contest, a figure that grows to close to 50% for the last judges on the ballot.)

As for write-in votes. You got that right. Take that right seriously and reserve it for when there actually IS a write in campaign going on. In most cases, write in votes are only seen by poll workers, who have to count them by hand at the end of a very, very long day. And don't get me started on Fred Hoiberg. There's ten names on the ballot. Pick one. But do so knowing that either Clinton or Trump will be the next president.

Which leads my to my final argument, which no one who needs to read it will see because the people who need to are disaffected and un-reachable voters who don't read intermittently published political blogs.

And that's what worries me: that the same "Everybody *I* Know" dynamic we saw in the primaries, in which students in monolithic Bernie academic precincts were unable to comprehend that an AME congregation in Georgia may not be voting the same way, will happen this fall. There are going to be yooge numbers of Johnson County voters, concentrated in the student precincts, who will literally know zero open Trump supporters. Unable to believe Trump could actually win the state, they'll feel like they get a freebie, a Protest Vote that is nothing of the kind.

The left, the center, and much of the right is recoiling against Trumpism, a weird mishmash of the Know Nothing Party, the National Front style movements of Europe, alt-right internet trolls, and actual Illinois Nazis.

And John Belushi knew what to do with Illinois Nazis: run them into the river.

To discredit Trumpism, a Johnson or Stein or Non vote doesn't help. That's because the story that will be told in the short term and engraved in history in the long term is the MARGIN. And that story will be told in Hillary Percent Minus Trump Percent, with the third parties forgotten in the headlines and ignored by the history books. The Protest Votes will be literally written out of that math.

Monday, September 05, 2016

A Rank and File Labor Day in Iowa City

Johnson County was off the beaten path this Labor Day.

Rank and file attendance at the Iowa City Federation of Labor picnic was at its usual levels, but the draw was more solidarity and food than big name speakers, as Iowa City took a back seat to Hillary Clinton's visit to the Quad Cities this afternoon.

The biggest name on hand, Dave Loebsack, spoke extra early before heading to the QC. (Hillary or no Hillary, that event is an every year stop for him.) The once accidental congressman is now the state's ranking elected Democrat and is filling a new role in campaigning for other candidates. "I've been helping a lot of other folks out but don't take my race for granted," he said in brief reference to his own race, before going back to talking about other races.

The newsworthy moment came from a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, shouted at Loebsack on his way to the car. "We're not going to vote on it and if we do I'll vote against it,"he said to applause.

Local legislators were largely absent and presumably at the Clinton event, with the exception of Senator Kevin Kinney, wearing his Johnson County Cattlemen hat and manning the grill. House 77 candidate Amy Nielsen, the only Johnson County Democrat in a contested down-ballot race, also spoke.

All five members of the incoming Board of Supervisors were on hand, with the not yet elected Kurt Friese standing a little to the side as the other supervisors collected another round of thanks for the minimum wage ordinance, a local labor win that's spreading to other counties.

Other electeds spotted: Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton and council members John Thomas and Rockne Cole, school board member Phil Hemingway, and Swisher mayor Christopher Taylor.