Sunday, November 11, 2012

How Do We Fix That

"We need to fix that," the just re-elected President Obama said of long election lines in his victory speech. We all saw the long lines in Ohio and, again, Florida, as vote suppression efforts seem to have backfired and instead increased people's determination to vote.

Election laws and practices have political consequences. Look at these maps to see how this year's election would have played out if voting rights were reduced. Things I've heard: "If you can't make the effort to get to the polls On. Election. Day. you shouldn't vote." "If you can't fill the forms out right your vote shouldn't count." "Only taxpayers should vote." "College students should only be able to vote by absentee ballot from their parent's address."

But let's assume, as Obama does, that voting should be easy, though even that seemingly basic principle of democracy is opposed by many. If so, the national discussion is beginning on just how do we fix that.

Unlike most people, I think about this all the time. As I've often noted this fall, mostly to excuse myself from covering campaign events or writing as much as usual my day job is in the auditor's office. I'm a local government lifer (well, 15 years down and 13 years till my IPERS Rule of 88).

In America, elections are administered locally. But most of the proposed solutions are national. Iowa already has many of these solutions, including extensive early voting. I'm a little leery, because I worry that standardized national deadlines might be stricter than Iowa's 40 days of early voting, 10 day pre-registration deadline, and election day registration with ID and proof of address.

I do, however, like the idea of a nationalized voter database. Six years ago Iowa moved from locally-maintained files to a statewide system, and it's helped a lot. We know we have a lot of students on the rolls who are graduated and gone, but existing law makes it hard to clean up. If a voter moves from Iowa City to Des Moines, Polk County takes them away from us and they're good to vote. Cook County or Hennepin County should be able to do that, too.

In addition to the data processing, registration itself could change. Other countries register you to vote automatically, rather than you registering to vote on your own. For some weird reason, there are Americans who pride themselves on not voting and will demand the right to not register. Go figure. This fall I had an interesting talk with an Australian journalist who noted that in her country, voting is mandatory, with a small tax fine for refusal. She said this changes the nature of campaigns; parties don't have to work to get out the vote.

As anyone who's ever heard NPR trying to stretch a slow weekend newscast knows. most countries in the world vote on Sundays. That would work well in my very secular home town, Iowa City, but would never fly in the fundamentalist parts of America, but the idea of a national election day holiday has come up.

Short of that, even giving a few people a day off could help a lot.

 A presidential election is a massive operation. It requires a permanent infrastructure of equipment, yet most of the work is temporary. Our county had more than 500 people working on Tuesday, and most jobs had to be balanced by both party and by gender. It's a bit of a challenge to recruit 50% Republicans in a two to one Democratic county like Johnson; I have no idea how 6 to 1 Republican counties do it.

In my experience, from this election, the biggest need, the biggest thing that could speed up those lines, is more computer literate people working at the polls. Most of Iowa has moved toward the use of computers, rather than printed lists, to check voters in on election day. It doesn't matter how many extra workers and computers you add, if you don't have workers who can effectively work the computers.

Not to take anything away from our poll workers, many of whom are excellent. But most are retired, because those are the people who can offer themselves for the whole, long day, and some find the computers difficult. It can be as simple as inability to see and follow a mouse cursor, or older men who never learned a keyboard. In the pre-computer era, typing was considered "Woman's Work," so many older men are unfamiliar with keyboards. As late as the late 70s, I was discouraged from taking typing, and I was looking at journalism as a career. So here's a couple ways to increase the pool of workers:  

Close the schools for the day. (Or at least the upper grades, since closed elementary schools would mean child care complications for many voting parents of younger kids). Close down the extracurricular events, too. This would free up people. Give the teachers in-service credit for working the polls, and right there is a highly skilled group of workers. Many of our best workers now are retired teachers.  Closing the schools also frees up parking, a major issue at some of our polling places.

Close other government offices for the day. This frees up even more workers, experienced career bureaucrats used to dealing with the public. One of our very best people is an administrator in another department. She takes vacation time just so she can work the polls. This would have to be worked out through collective bargaining in some cases, but I'm union chair for our unit and personally, I'd be happy to pass out license plates or birth certificates a few days during the off-season in exchange for the extra help at crunch time.

And here's a small incentive for the general public: Give people jury duty credit for working the polls. I'd say the two rank equally in terms of civic duty.

One of the concerns from other states is the length of the ballot. That's a bit of an issue in Iowa, too, with our multiple layers of judges and our soil and ag commissioners. But there's a trade-off: A shorter ballot means more elections in between the big ones. Johnson County is looking at the prospect of three special elections in the first half of next year, and the various code sections defy common sense and make it difficult or impossible to combine them. School elections can't be combined with anything else, and that needs to go on the We Need To Change That list.

(We need to change a LOT about our school districts, like straightening out the lines so they aren't based on where our grandparents wanted to send our parents to school in 1960. But that's another post...)

And one last suggestion. When we went on vacation, we rented a Redbox movie at a truck stop in Tennessee. My sons watched it on a laptop and we returned it to our HyVee in Iowa City.

We may be a long way from that with voting. But. I used to pass four polling places on my way to work. But I was on the edge of my precinct so if I had wanted to vote on Election Day, I would have had to travel a mile and a half in the opposite direction. Fortunately, I'd already voted at a polling place located conveniently three feet in front of my desk. Not everyone is so fortunate. Within reason, say, within county or even state, in the 21st century anyone should be able to vote at any polling place.

Notice I've left out discussion of photo ID. That's because that politically toxic debate is getting in the way of other reforms. We have divided government agiain at both the state and federal levels. Our officials need to get to work on other, less controversial reforms, and not let the ID issue block action.

No comments: