Saturday, February 11, 2017

Partisan Spin on Election Cleanup Bill

A small item in an election bill has gotten a lot of attention the past couple days, and that attention has all come with a suspiciously similar partisan spin.

House Study Bill 78 is not the much more high profile “Voter Integrity” (sic) bill promoted by Secretary of State Paul Pate that includes voter ID requirements. HSB78 is instead what’s usually called the “technical bill.” Most years, a bill like that comes up to fix non-controversial or administrative items.

HSB78 includes a new requirement that campaigns that collect voter registration forms turn the forms in within a week of collecting them, and within 72 hours during the last 40 days. That’s similar to current law regarding absentee requests. It also created a new code violation called “organizational noncompliance.”

There are several other items in the bill that are more substantive, including changes in how some ballot vacancies and nursing home ballots are handled.

But the attention has all been on the registration form clause, and always with a similar headline to Ryan Foley’s AP piece: “Iowa bill outlaws voter form delays, in rebuke of Democrats.” The backstory:
It's a response to the Democratic Party's submission of 66 incomplete forms in Johnson County several weeks after they were collected...
Democratic Party organizers collected the forms in Johnson County, the state's most Democratic, in August and September. But they had defects such as missing signatures and workers tried to contact voters to get them to make corrections.

The party submitted them Oct. 26 with an explanation to Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert. Current law doesn't set a deadline for submitting registration forms, but the deadline to get registered before Election Day was Oct. 29. Voters can register at the polls but must have identification.
I hesitate to give this more attention but I’m a bit player in this drama: I'm the dude who had to process those forms once they were turned in. (I assume everyone reading knows but for full clarity I've worked in the Johnson County auditor's office for 19 years.) That was part of our normal work flow. At non-crunch time I do most of the routine data entry. At crunch time temps do most of it. I help train and supervise them, and I get the problems and the complicated stuff.

Tracking down problem registrations and requests takes a lot of time and has a low success rate. We have far more than any other county because of the nature of our community – a lot of young people who have never voted before and who move every year.

I’ve instructed campaign staffers of both parties, at work and on my own time, for literally decades on how to properly complete forms.  And I, like office staffers in many counties, recommended that campaign staffers follow up with voters and help fix problems, and then  bring forms in after a reasonable effort. And, as we see from the fact a change is proposed, current law doesn’t set a hard deadline on registrations like it does for absentee requests.

Staffers are only as good as the weakest volunteer. If a volunteer doesn’t get their packet back to HQ on time, or doesn’t catch the mistakes at the door, the staffer is stuck with it - and in the end I’m stuck with it.

The task had probably gotten lower and lower in priority because they were a garbage pile of un-fixable problems.  I assume they literally got buried on a desk. In the week before the pre-registration deadline, the marching orders from state HQ to the staffers were to do a full check of the office before the pre-registration deadline – for exactly this reason.  Frankly, it would have been easier for them to have just thrown them away; we would have never known. But they didn’t. They brought them in with an explanation and an apology.

I had a problem pile at the office too, sorted and full of post-its: “Letter sent 10/18- Elvised. 10/24 voter says will come in to office. Email 10/23. Left VM 10/22, again 10/27.” A couple times a week I went through it, checked the voter system to see if the problem was fixed, and made additional contact efforts where I could. Some got fixed. Some never did. Some people fill out forms without even intending to vote because they just want the doorknocker to go away.

Since I was in charge of the office's garbage pile, I got handed the Dems’ garbage pile when it came in. I can’t find exact numbers but maybe a third had successfully registered by the time we got the forms. There were a few more I could fix where the problem was a missing ID number that I was able to hunt down on the state voter system.

What was left was the worst of the worst. Parent’s addresses out of state (a common mistake because students are permanently confused as to how they should list their addresses). No addresses at all. Illegible names. No names at all. I was able to track down UI email addresses for some.  I sent letters where I could. I sent letters to parent's addresses. I called the same bad phone numbers the staffers had called.

There were some where I could do nothing at all. Can’t remember if it was in this pile, but I’ve seen forms turned in with nothing but an illegible signature. The only difference if these forms had come in earlier is that they would have been in my garbage pile sooner instead of the campaign’s.

Maybe you think that’s worth changing the law.

When I read the bill I spotted this change and knew exactly why it was there. If the law is changed, the campaigns will adapt, though the threat of "organizational noncompliance" may intimidate some volunteer, non-campaign organizations out of doing registration drives. But it won't really HELP anything, because there’s no incentive for campaigns to sit on registration forms.

There have been other bills designed to deal with specific field staff issues. The law requiring campaigns to turn in absentee requests within 72 hours was passed because in 2002 the Democrats had made a stupid decision. They turned in requests staggered and sorted by precinct, so they could chase ballots by precinct. (“We’re bringing in Iowa City 16 requests  on Monday, so we’re calling Iowa City 16 Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday we bring in precinct 17 and we call them Friday.”) So we got forms signed in June turned in during October.

I liked that change because it gave us more time to work and fix problems and because it got ballots to voters faster. Though there’s still a hole in the law, which is repeated in this bill: three-day holiday weekends are more than 72 hours long and the poor staffers stress out about it. Just add a line about “next business day.”

We also had the god-awful “courier” law from the 2004 and 2006 cycles, which limited who could pick up and return voted ballots and created a lot of extra paperwork and busywork for both campaigns and auditors. It was passed because an exhausted staffer, again here in Johnson County, had dropped the ball on bringing in the ballots they’d chased the night before the election. It accomplished nothing and I was happy to see that one repealed.

The fishy part of HSB78 is why this particular, relatively minor item in what is usually a low profile bill has been rolled out to the press in such a big way.

In part, it seems timed to distract from the Dallas County debacle where nearly 6000 absentee ballots were not reported. The Secretary of State's office is not the main culprit here, but they should have noticed the problem sooner than February.

But we all know the main reason. It's to push Pate's "voter integrity" agenda by creating the illusion of “fraud,” or shady activity, around the Democrats. 

That’s a completely different bill, and the press and the public need to be able to separate the issues.  There’s nothing in this honest staffer mistake that voter ID would have “fixed,” and voter IDs will do much more to reduce access to the voting booth than an illegible form turned in late.

No comments: