Thursday, July 31, 2014

Helping Caucuses ≠ Running Caucuses

Brad Anderson's modest proposal to have county auditor's get a little help to the political parties for the caucus was, naturally, quickly turned into a partisan attack by Charlie Smithson, Mini-Me to lame duck Secretary of State Matt Schultz:
 "If government becomes involved with the caucus process," Smithson said, "other states will argue that the caucuses have become the functional equivalent of a primary. That would create serious problems in Iowa maintaining its first-in- the-nation status."
There are far bigger existential threats to the caucuses, but that's another issue. Anderson's proposal is That's explicitly nothing of the kind, as he had already explained in plain English:
Although there is no formal role the state should play in the caucuses, given the importance of the caucuses in the nomination process, as well as to Iowa’s reputation and economy, there are ways the next Iowa Secretary of State can be supportive to keep Iowa first in the nation.

Strengthening the integrity of the caucuses should be a top priority for both parties.  In the age of Twitter, any perceived impropriety could be tweeted, re-tweeted and become viral in a matter of minutes.  Both parties should utilize 21st Century solutions to ensure only eligible caucus-goers are attending and participating in the process. The days of printing out reams of paper with outdated lists of eligible caucus-goers for volunteers to reference during the cumbersome check-in process must come to an end.  Parties should be encouraged to utilize electronic poll book technology that would provide up-to-date lists and allow Iowans to check-in electronically.  I believe the next Secretary of State should work with each of the parties to develop and support an affordable, efficient and effective electronic poll book that would allow caucus participants to easily check-in and allow volunteers to immediately confirm eligibility.  Utilizing existing technology to develop a caucus poll book will increase the speed of development and cut down on cost for the parties.
Having worked for many years on both elections (Officially) and caucuses (on my own time), here's how I see Anderson's ideas helping.

Anyone who's ever chaired a caucus or helped with a check-in knows that stale lists are a huge problem. Caucus lists usually get printed by the state parties in November, soon after the city elections. There's been no other way to get them distributed from the state parties to the 99 county chairs and then to the thousands of precinct chairs.

The problem with the early print date is that all the changes between November and January are lost. Public awareness of the caucuses, in particular awareness that you have to affiliate to participate, ramps up right at the same time.

Thousands of people across the state update their make special trips to auditor's offices to update their registrations in anticipation of caucus night. Then they get to their precinct and aren't on the list.

I can't speak for Republicans, but instructions to Democrats are: if they're not on the list, they fill out a form. That leads to a lot of wasted time in the caucus line, and wasted effort back at auditor's offices later, when those redundant and repetitive forms that say the same thing over again get turned in.

How big an issue is this? Let's look at some statewide active registration numbers from the last two cycles.

  Dem Rep None Other Total
11/1/2007 600,572 574,571 737,054 N/A 1,311,625
1/3/2008 606,209 576,231 742,124 3 1,318,358
2/1/2008 664,658 583,192 692,979 70 1,276,241
  Dem Rep None Other Total
11/1/2011 645,700 612,529 714,182 2,169 1,328,880
1/3/2012 644,223 614,913 719,405 2,146 1,336,464
2/1/2012 633,747 629,269 704,049 1,950 1,335,268

There are some complications to these stats. Routine registrations, mostly via drivers licenses, are constant.  But by and large, the overwhelming majority of registration activity through these time frames is caucus related.

November 1 is just before city elections. Those usually attract frequent voters and prompt relatively little registration and change activity. (Iowa City 2007 is an exception, because of the first 21 Bar vote, but that was the last election before Iowa's election day registration law kicked in, so all the registration activity was already included in the November number.)

The numbers are also muddied a bit because annual list maintenance from postal records seems to have been processed relatively early in 2008, producing an overall drop in February `08 registration despite the record caucus turnout.

Also in 2008, the Greens and Libertarians earned their "non-party organization" status on January 1, so there's no "before" caucus number to compare. The statistics lump Greens and Libertarians together as "Other," a longtime pet peeve of mine.

So it's impossible to tell exactly. But it looks like in 2008, 9% of the caucus related jump in Democratic registration, and 19% of the Republican increase, was in the two months prior to the caucus rather than on caucus night itself. In 2012, 14% of the Republican increase, and 12% of the Democratic decline, was in November-December. Note also the Other decline in 2011-12, as a relatively huge chunk of the registered Libertarians crossed over to caucus for Ron Paul.

So just a fresher list, provided electronically rather than on paper, could speed up check-in for maybe one out of six caucus goers. And that's not even taking into account all the people previously registered as Democrats or Republicans who updated addresses between November and January to be "ready" for caucus night, only to be handed a form.

Most counties using electronic poll books use software called Precinct Atlas, developed and primary maintained by Cerro Gordo County. (Schultz introduced competing software, but almost all counties stayed with Precinct Atlas.) Look up is fairly simple, and data updates aren't hard. It's easy to see this software being tweaked for caucus purposes, and having the Secretary of State's office work with the state parties to facilitate the data updates.

There's a lot of logistics to work out, of course. You'd have to have trained party volunteers at each caucus site, and also technology at each site. Internet access would be good, but not essential if the software was stand-alone and updated in advance. The trend in caucus locations is away from the old-fashioned living rooms and toward handicapped accessible public facilities more likely to be wired in.

The harder part is getting a body or bodies in each precinct who has a laptop or laptops and is comfortable working it. The official non-party structure of Secretary of State and Auditors could be of some informal help here.

It's harder to get party caucus workers than Official election day poll workers, because poll workers can be assigned outside their own precinct. They simply need to vote absentee ahead of time. But with no absentee procedure (yet), any caucus volunteer who isn't at their own location gives up their vote. I've seen county chairs do that and take the unclaimed caucus packet to the empty building and wait for no one to show up.

(As Democrats, at least, consider a very limited absentee process for 2016, letting chairs who run a precinct other than their own participate in the caucus would be a nice minor repair. Would only affect a tiny handful, but would go a LONG way in making things run smoothly. Our county has a problem of too many good activists concentrated in the same precincts.)

Since I'm bilingual in both Caucus and Election, I kind of informally reached out to some poll workers and recruited them for caucus help. I couldn't offer to PAY them, like they get paid on Election Day, but our experience here in Johnson County is that poll workers are often willing to volunteer for things like our county fair mock election.

The poll workers are also trained on the electronic poll books in many counties, so they'd be a natural fit for caucus help.

Parties are unusual organizations and caucuses are unusual institutions. They're semi-private and semi-public, semi-political and semi-civic minded. It's a good and natural fit for the official election structure to support and help the parties with the caucuses, not in setting rules or in counting, but in helping them run smoothly.

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