Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bill Would Slash Early Voting From Six Weeks To Two

Iowa would cram all its in-person early voting into just two weeks under legislation introduced today.

Senate File 339 sponsored by Rick Bertrand (R-SUX) would move the first day of in person early voting, at the auditor's office or satellite sites, from the current 40 days before the election to just 15 days out.

It would also cut off vote by mail requests 15 days before the election, which is stricter than the 10 days out proposed under Secretary of State Paul Pate's "Voter Integrity" (sic) bill, and far stricter than the current four day cutoff.

Restrictions on early voting days are often the next step in voter suppression after ID laws.

While it's not clear yet whether Bertrand's bill has any traction, it confirms what I have feared for weeks: that Pate's bill is just the tip of the iceberg and that additional election restrictions will be proposed. Also in the mix are Sandy Salmon's House File 150, which would end election day registration, and Brad Zaun's bill that proposes a stricter voter ID standard than Pate's plan.

Bertrand's bill also includes an unworkable deadline for overseas voters. The federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires overseas ballots to ship out 45 days before a federal election. Bertrand would push that back to 60 days - just three days after the final date for county candidates to withdraw. That would make programming, printing, and testing ballots impossible - and for little real gain, since the overwhelming majority of overseas voters choose to have their ballots emailed. (Almost all have to print and mail them back.)

So with the ballots ready earlier, why not let people vote them?

I've looked at numbers for my county. We've long been the heaviest early voting county in Iowa; in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2016 we had more early votes than election day votes. We also had the biggest Democratic margins all of those years, which Rick Bertrand may have noticed. Here's how the 2016 numbers break down.

Johnson County had 43,092 absentee requests, between mail, office voters, and satellite voters. 41,795 early votes counted. Numbers won't match up perfectly; this is about big picture. Some ballots never come back, some people made errors that kept them from getting counted, and some people turned them in unvoted and voted at the polls. Also, provisional ballots get added into the absentee totals.

Office voters

We had 17,764 total voters at office, from 40 days out through the day before the election, on a total of 31 voting days. Overall average was 573 a day.

7316 of those were early-early, from 40 days out through 18 days out (a Friday, we were closed that weekend). That's 17 total days averaging 430 voters a day. These would not be allowed under Bertrand’s bill.

Some of that is people with their mind made up, and they're doing the late-early voters a favor by getting their business done and getting out of the way before the late deciders showed up. Some of that was people leaving town, who would be in transit those last couple weeks.

Another 10,446 voters came to the office from 15 days out through the day before the election, over 14 total voting days. (We were open two Saturdays as required by law, and the final Sunday by our choice). Some of those days included evening hours. That's an average of 746 per day, peaking at over 1800 the day before the election. We were using every square foot of building space, every body, every parking space, and every computer that was available, and a few that weren't.

Assuming everybody who preferred voting at the auditor's office still votes at the office, and we have to cram those 7316 earliest voters from the first 3 1/2 weeks into final two weeks, we would average 1269 a day. That’s busier than we were any single day except the final day’s 1800+. . (Our second busiest day was Friday before the election at 898.) More realistically, this would ramp up, from 1000 or so the first day to 2500 the last.

That's more time for voters to wait, and more workers to hire - because spreading the work over six weeks means we can keep the same people working more days and getting more efficient at the job

Satellite Voting

I still expect a move to ban satellite voting outright. The only proposal thus far is another bill which would require sites to be in cities of over 200 population. All Johnson County cities would qualify... but this would rule out rural sites. We've had a couple over the years.

SF339 would also ban satellite sites before 15 days out, cramming more workload into the final two weeks.

We've scaled back a little but Johnson County still has the most robust satellite schedule in the state. Three of our 2016 sites, with 935 voters, were before the 15 day period.

584 of that was at our traditional "Early Bird Day" on the very first day of voting at the Iowa City Public Library. Obviously, that kind of kickoff event would be out.

Mail

The language in Bertrand’s bill is a bit unclear about the first day for requests. He seems to think the old law that barred requests more than 70 days before the election is still in effect. It was repealed in 2004, and now the law is infinity. Pate's bill would make that 120 days and frankly that's the one thing in his bill I support. Under current law too many people move after they request ballots, and that causes a lot of problems. The only people who really need to request that early are overseas voters who are covered by federal law.

The early end is not the problem. The back end is the issue. Bertrand would cut off requests 15 days out.

Johnson County had 1783 domestic mailed ballot requests from 14 days out until 4 days out, the cutoff date under current law. 1477 of these were returned, and 1414 were counted. That includes 669 ballots requested less than 10 days out, which Pate's bill would ban. 485 of those were returned and 451 counted. Obviously there's a diminishing return, but that's still a large precinct's worth of voters.

Some of those late requests are procrastinators. But some are shut-ins or travelers or people who get interested late and have no other options.

SUMMING UP

10,034 Johnson County early voters, close to a quarter, would at the very least have to change their voting behavior:
  • 7316 office voters more than 15 days out. Some of that moves to mail, which is less reliable than in person voting. People make mistakes and forget to sign stuff, things get lost in the mail. My rule of thumb is 10 office votes is 10 votes, but 10 vote by mail requests is 9 votes. 
    Some of those office voters move into the back of the line, either at the auditor's office or at the polling places. How many of those people can't wait in the longer lines?
  • 1783 voters who requested mailed ballots less than 15 days out, 1414 of that counted. A lot of that unfortunately becomes non-votes.
  • 935 satellite voters more than 15 days out. Most of that moves to another line; some of that vote (especially the dorm we visited this year) gets lost.
That’s on top of the 5212 Johnson County election day registration votes that are at risk under HF150. So now we're up to over 15,000 Johnson County votes at risk, out of 77,000 total votes.

This hurts everybody... but it hurts the number one Democratic county more than anyone else. Which is exactly the point.

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.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Back To The Future IV: The Dallas County Election Canvass

Dallas County may need these guys to fix their election results.




The Des Moines Register reported yesterday that 5842 absentee ballots had not been included in the county's canvass report to the state. That was 13% of the total Dallas County vote, and a third of the absentee vote. Reaction has been swift and strong, with Iowa Starting Line's Pat Rynard calling for the resignation of auditor Julia Helm (who was just elected last November but was a long time election office staffer before that).

Aside from the mistake itself, the legal question is how to amend the state canvass to include those 5842 votes "count" on the permanent historic record. Based on my experience, that may not be easy or even possible without charging the flux capacitor to 1.21 jiggawatts, getting the DeLorean up to 88, and going back to the day before the canvass.
       
Johnson County made a similar mistake, which was much smaller and discovered much sooner, in 2004. At the time, we were told by the Secretary of State's office that the state canvass deadline was absolute and the votes could not be counted.

I also found some small canvass discrepancies in 2006, while researching turnout by county. Two small counties appeared to have entered their total voter registration in a space where they should have entered the total number of votes cast. (The actual vote counts were correct, but this created the statistical illusion of 100% turnout and an absurdly high number of under votes.) Again, I was told at the time that the state canvass was absolute, permanent and final.

The 2016 election calendar required counties to hold their canvass on Monday, November 14 or Tuesday the 15th. The deadline to file for a recount was the 17th or 18th, three days post-canvass. Canvass reports were then due to the Secretary of State by Monday, November 21, and the state canvass was due to be completed by December 5.

I personally think it would be best to find a way to get the Dallas County votes on the final official record. I'm not a lawyer, but that might be hard. The question is: how do you allow for the correction of a serious but apparently honest mistake, without simultaneously opening cans of worms that leave election results in limbo forever?

The other big question is did how nobody - office staff, campaigns, the news media, or election returns geeks - noticed that Dallas County's absentee ballot totals were implausibly low until February?

The Secretary of State's office was frequently updating absentee ballot numbers by county in the run-up to election day. Their last report shows 18,527 Dallas County absentee ballots returned. The canvass report shows Dallas County with 12,566 absentee votes in the presidential race.

Compare that to similar sized Pottawattamie County, which saw 18,108 absentees returned and reported 17,980 absentee votes for president, a much more plausible ratio and a much more typical ratio. I mean, you get SOME absentee ballots that can't be counted, and SOME people who skip the top of the ballot contest, but not a third of the returned ballots.

The auditor's office should have caught it, of course. But if we had a functional and sufficiently staffed journalism system, whoever was assigned the Number Crunching Story (which professionals used to do but only bloggers write anymore) would have seen it. Campaign staffers obsessively track request and return numbers, yet no one staring at a VAN report in the week between election night and the canvass caught it either.

And if it had been caught before the canvass it would have been much easier to fix.

Flashing back to our own experience in 2004: As you recall the national race, and the Iowa race, were both razor-thin that cycle. Iowa was decided by about 4000 votes, so every little advantage counted.

Our office was blindsided the day before the election by an unprecedented, and thankfully as yet unrepeated, mass challenge of absentee ballots led by one of the local Republicans. Over 2000 ballots were challenged, many on spurious grounds, in an effort that was so over the top that the law actually got changed in 2007 to narrow the reasons for which ballots could be challenged.

The absentee room is confusing enough as it is, and on top of normal confusion we had this extra layer of contentiousness. (The absentee room is part of my job now but wasn't in 2004.)

To make the long story shot, a batch of challenged and provisional ballots, 121 to be precise, got checked and were determined to be OK. They were then set aside to get counted. Someone fumbled the ball and didn't get them opened and fed through the machine. Once the canvass was finished and reported to the state, and the recount period had passed, we started cleaning up... and found them.

Then-auditor Tom Slockett  wanted to get the votes counted, so we contacted the Secretary of State's office. We were instructed that since the canvass was already complete and the canvass deadline had passed, we were not legally able to count the votes. Slockett ignored the instructions and did it anyway, calling the second canvass a "Report Of Ballot Information." There is still a discrepancy of 121 total voters between the official 2004 state canvass and the Johnson County canvass. Hopefully, the Secretary of State and Dallas County find a better way to fix the records this time.