Monday, March 30, 2015

Shop Talk: Voter File Maintenance Mailings Not Sexy. But Are Important

tl;dr = If you get one of these sign it and send it back.


In the election administration business, you never know what people are going to think is a big deal and what people will look at and go meh.

I've written this story so many times and I'm really trying to sell it because it's really important. And I really really though the little detail "a 45 year old woman who last voted in 1992 is still registered at a sorority house" would be a mini-scandal.

But so far only the Coralville Courier (who does the public service of running my press releases as is) and the Press-Citizen have picked up on the Four Year No Activity voter maintenance mailing that went out late last week. Here's the official version; this is the rewrite with more color and flavor.

 Cancelling registrations in Iowa used to be easy. Maybe a little too easy. Four years without voting (or some other activity like a move), you were out. Most people still think that's the law.

Nope. That all changed with the Motor Voter law, which passed in 1993 and kicked in for January 1995. Under Motor Voter, no one can get cancelled just for not voting. For the last 20 years, everything has depended on the MAIL. Younger readers, that means US Postal Service snail mail.

Now, instead of just cancelling you after four years, we mail you a card as sort of a friendly reminder. It goes out every year about this this time; they hit mailboxes this past weekend.

A bunch of different things can happen at this point.  And depending on what those things are, we may have something to go on.

Never gets old.

If the cards get returned to sender, address unknown, we place the voter on "inactive" status.

Think of inactive status as preliminary cancellation, with a grace period. Voters stay inactive through the next two general elections.

So the process takes a long, long time. People who last voted in the 2010 21 Bar And Other Unimportant Stuff Like Governor election got sent a card last week, and if it gets Elvised back to us they don't get cancelled till early in 2019.

Inactive status has been around for 20 years and I've yet to meet a campaign field staffer who understands the concept. An inactive voter is NOT what they call in staffer speak a Weak Voting Dem. An inactive voter is someone where there's hard evidence that they have probably moved away.

Yet every cycle, staffers and the volunteers they're instructing waste countless, priceless crunch-time time chasing after voters who have almost certainly left the state

Most of the cards get Elvised back, but some get through. People who've moved can update their addresses. Which is good, but not straightforward.

I've you've moved within the county, you get updated. But a lot of people don't have that concept of "county." You would think that if you sent the election office a card updating your address from Coralville to Cedar Rapids, that would change your address.

WRONG. You get completely cancelled and aren't registered anywhere. (Thank God we have election day registration so you can fix something like this.)

We can also cancel people if we get word from another state that they registered there. (Within the state, counties just take voters away from each other on a statewide system.) But that depends on self-reporting. And it's not unheard of for young people to forget that they voted in their college town one time. (We actually had people who thought 21 Bar was a student government election.) The problem is also greater for women because they're more likely to change names.

If you sign a card for someone else, like a relative or a previous resident, we can't do anything more than inactivate the record. That's true even if you have power of attorney - which is specifically addressed and included in the law. Power of attorney is no good for anything to do with voting and elections.

If we send the card out and never hear back, we have to assume that you still live there and just aren't interested in voting. There are a few people like that. Not so much people who vote every other or third presidential election. More like truly apolitical people who vote in a school bond or tax related election every dozen years.

You ever heard of the law of unintended consequences? Motor Voter is one of those laws, and certain problems repeat themselves:
  • Real example. Junior is late 30s, last voted in late 90s. Still registered at parent's address.  Mailman keeps delivering cards. Law requires us to assume Junior still lives at home.  Mom and Dad can send the card back, but all we can do is inactivate. We have to get Junior, who now lives is a warmer state with more jobs, to sign for himself, and usually Mom and Dad care more about it.
  • Grandma is in the nursing home. She has occasional good days, but unfortunately they're getting more rare.  Daughter has power of attorney. That does no good. If Grandma can't understand the card and sign her name, there's nothing we can do till we get the obituary.
  • Suzy Sorority graduates. Four years later a big pile of cards for alumni shows up at the Delta Delta Delta Can I Help Ya Help Ya Help Ya house. Sally Sorority, the pledge in charge of sorting the mail, pitches them. I pre-emptively contact Greek life and the dorms when these mailings happen and they're extremely helpful. But it all comes down to that last link in the chain.
Which is why a 45 year old woman who last voted in 1992 is still registered. And there's a reason it's  1992. The people who last voted in 1990 got cancelled in late 1994, right before Motor Voter kicked in.

All this stuff is as frustrating to us election administrators as it is to any volunteer who's ever doorknocked a really bad list.  But it all depends on the voter's understanding and cooperation. So, help us out, OK?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Democratic Caucus Changes: What Do We Think Here?

Congratulations. If you're still reading me, you're a certified Iowa Caucus Geek. You know that the Iowa Democrats have released their draft rules for 2016, that we're making changes that will include satellite and military caucuses, and that these changes will not have a huge impact on caucus math.

The military tele-caucus seems like the best possible solution to that issue, IF the military cooperation is forthcoming which is a big if.

The satellite caucuses worry me a little more. This CAN work. I want it to work. I'm not opposed in principle, but I do have some Fear and Loathing.

My preference was for a very tightly controlled proxy vote, tied to medical or work reasons. I threw out the suggestions of licensed care facilities and handicapped plates: both things which are defined and finite, and both things which are not politically controlled. And that would also have counted those people in the regular precinct based caucus process.

But it was clear from the git-go that satellite caucuses were the way Iowa was going - because that's what Nevada did in 2008, and because the person who organized that in Nevada 2008 had IDP ties.

There were problems with predicting attendance, and with accusations that sites favored one or another candidate. Iowa's proposed rules address some of those - Nevada let anyone near the satellite site attend, but Iowa would limit it to people who lived or worked at the site. But it doesn't surprise me that Nevada is now considering a primary instead.

They can do that, because their third vs. fourth rivalry with South Carolina is nowhere near as high stakes as Iowa vs. New Hampshire. Accept the basic premise here: if Iowa is to stay first, it's a caucus.

90% of Nevada's population is in ONE county, and that community is dominated by a few large around the clock employers. That was the whole idea: satellite caucuses at the hotels and casinos. We have actual footage:

The concept was, workers couldn't get to their home precinct on lunch break, but could get to a break room on site. (This was on a Saturday afternoon - which is also a change I think Iowa should have looked at that, but was never taken seriously.)  "Lunch break" kinda turned into "most of the afternoon," which any Iowa caucus veteran can understand.

Iowa, as all the college graduates leaving the state know, ain't Vegas.  We don't have very many of those giant, tens of thousands of employee places. But as I've said, the idea is not to fundamentally change the caucuses. The idea is to increase inclusiveness and show an effort.

Not to single her out. But Hillary Clinton is casting a Mt. Everest size shadow over the 2016 nomination process. Her critique of Iowa's must attend in person caucus process began even before Caucus Night 2008.

The argument that troops and shift workers couldn't attend had some moral high ground, sure. But it was also being used to excuse away in advance the poor Iowa result Clinton knew was coming.

The real problem was that Clinton's strategists had planned poorly for caucus states, not just here but nation-wide.  That error proved fatal, as Obama scooped up the caucus state delegates that made the difference in a very tight contest. And as that endless nomination fight went on, the complaints about caucuses as a process became part of that fight, with opinions breaking largely and predictably along Hillary-Barack lines.

Don't get me wrong. These changes could be improvements in our very good system. But let's be honest: the genesis, the roots, of these changes are basically A Clinton Thing.

The Clinton 2015 campaign - if it even happens - is not the Clinton 2007 campaign. At least I hope not, for her sake and Iowa's. But it already seems clear that Clinton 2015 will be staff-heavy but light on candidate presence. The strategy is clearly following Gore 1999: crush the outgunned opposition in the first state(s), and pivot fast to the general.

"Crush the outgunned opposition" is where I'm feeling the Fear And Loathing about the process changes.

I was a pro journalist in 2007, and I followed all the candidates of both parties closely. There was a lot of what I'd call overkill in Clinton Iowa 2007, on stuff that didn't make real differences. Stuff like the way they did over-did sign war at the multi-candidate events, or the food trays at the caucus sites. (I shamelessly ate a Hillary sandwich on my way to the Obama corner. Well, not entirely without shame as I'm confessing now.)

They even had a snow shovel brigade on standby. Stuff that could be planned ahead and managed and controlled and dealt with by throwing in more resources thrown at it.

So I'm worried that these satellite caucus sites will get overkilled. I work in elections, and I've been deeply involved in the closest analogy, satellite VOTING sites, for 20 years. I've seen satellite voting petitions overkilled. And I've seen sites fail miserably at great effort and expense.

I have been reassured that the petition review process will include the opportunity for the state party to say no, which makes me feel better. Increasing inclusiveness is good, but there are a lot of legitimate reasons to say no: insufficient space, low anticipated turnout. Schedule conflicts, because believe it or not, other things may be happening in Iowa on February 1 other than caucuses. (Same problem happens with regular caucus sites. We've been bumped for ballgames before.) And, if Overkill happens, lack of resources.

The resource I'm most thinking of is skilled, experienced caucus chairs. It is really, really hard to recruit caucus chairs. Now, with a satellite caucus, we need to get one or two or however many more. The state party is saying it will take responsibility for the satellite caucus chairs. I appreciate that. But I also expect that at some point, the locals will be inevitably be asked for help.

Where exactly the line gets drawn, I'm not sure. There are two places in my county where I can legitimately see a want/need for a satellite caucus. Based on some past turnout data, I'd project that out to a couple dozen, maybe 30, in the whole state. Frankly, not every county needs one. We need enough to show we're making the effort.

If we got a third one in my county, we locals could live with it. But if we get two dozen in a county, we definitely need to be saying no. 
We've all worked through campaign cycles, both caucus and general, where the national HQ didn't listen to the locals. (John Kerry in the 2004 general was especially bad.) I'm worried that those field staffers will hit the ground with marching orders from Chappaqua: You are to get a satellite caucus in all 99 counties. You are to get a satellite caucus at every nursing home and every hospital and every factory with a second shift. You are to get a satellite caucus site in every dorm, and no we don't care that the county party has scheduled the regular caucus at the Iowa Memorial Union.

That would disrupt and upend the whole caucus culture. The default is still supposed to be: if you can, you go to your precinct caucus. The satellite caucuses are EXTRA, not instead of.

A small thing I'd like to see added to the draft rules: Require the satellite caucus petitioner to have some sort of standing. The county candidate captains or staffers shouldn't make the ask. It should be someone actually eligible to participate at the site: a resident or an employee. If the campaigns want to recruit those people, great.

My advice to the Clinton campaign, and to all of the other campaigns and semi-campaigns and bird-dogging groups: Go back to my Part 3 and read the math. The satellite caucuses, as a whole, are the 98½th biggest county. You should not put any more effort into the satellite caucuses than you put into Adams County. 

But if Overkill happens it will not be about the few delegates at stake. It will be about making a rhetorical statement. This is a Sign Of Our Strong Support. And, implicitly, it will send a message of Iowa You've Been Doing It Wrong.

And that gets to my existential fear about Iowa's future. My prediction stands: If Clinton wins the nomination and election, which I expect, she tells the DNC no caucuses, only primaries. New Hampshire wins that battle, Iowa loses its role, and this affects both parties.

I know a lot of people who agree with me. I'm just the only one who says it in public to reporters.

It's on record: Hillary Clinton does not like the Iowa caucuses. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change is full of blind quotes and a bit sensationalist, but here's how they describe the mood of 2007:
If Hillary was going to be competitive in Iowa, she would need to go all out. The problem was, she hated it there….

She found the Iowans diffident and presumptuous; she felt they were making her grovel. Hillary detested pleading for anything, from money to endorsements, and in Iowa it was no different. She resisted calling the local politicos whose support she needed.

One time, she spent forty-five minutes on the phone wooing an activist, only to be told at the call’s end that the woman was still deciding between her and another candidate. Hillary hung up in a huff. “I can’t believe this!” she said. “How many times am I going to have to meet these same people?”
Me, she met twice. Both experiences were very positive. I can't get into why but I knew that she remembered me and the story I told, and that she actually cared about it. And as I watched her interact with others, I could see that Hillary Clinton is an excellent retail politician.

Yet it seems clear, from the macro-strategy of the 2008 campaign and from the pre-campaign phase of 2016, that she does not like retail politics, especially the unpredictability of it. And especially especially the press part of it.

Two days before the caucuses, on New Year's Day night 2008, I attended my last caucus event, a Clinton rally in downtown Iowa City. I spent most of the next day writing this piece summing up her Iowa campaign:
The Clinton campaign, in contrast, ran a cautious general election campaign in the ultimate retail environment.  But like a singer with perfect pitch who misses the meaning of the song, Clinton kept errors to a minimum but failed to capture the spontaneous spirit of the caucuses...

No one incident captures this perfectly, but little detail after little detail paints the picture.

A staffer subtly steering me away from a friend of many years, directing her to the public seats and me to the roped off press area.  Offering the press free pizza after the speech, rather than what we really wanted: time to ask the candidate a question.  The relentless focus on sign war at cattle call events, bringing in loads of staffers and making it harder to ferret out the genuine levels of support.  The careful release, then quick denial, of a strategy memo last spring arguing that Clinton should skip Iowa, underscoring her relative weakness in the state and inoculating her against expectations.  Supporters leaving the Harkin Steak Fry after Clinton spoke without hearing the rest of the candidates, as if to send a scripted message of "I'm only here for Hillary."

Clinton was the only candidate who did not do a question and answer event at the University of Iowa or the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, and got caught red-handed planting questions at Grinnell.  Even little stuff like Chelsea Clinton smiling but saying not a word from the stage, and no-commenting a nine-year-old child reporter, made the campaign look too careful, too cautious.

A University student who attended a rally in Manchester reported that he was not allowed in until he put on a Hillary sticker, and said that at the end of the speech Clinton offered the crowd a choice: "I can answer some questions, OR, I can shake some hands."  The crowd roared its approval at the chance to meet, maybe even touch, the woman who would be president.

Iowans, of course, expect to shake hands AND ask questions. And all that (and the Iraq vote) was what landed her in third place.

This one really bothers me most: Post-caucus, there were rumors and backstage accusations that Obama had gamed the caucuses with supporters "bussed in from Illinois." (In Iowa City, that has a VERY strong racial subtext. Not even a SUB-text, really.) I heard it from locals; Game Change blind-quoted it to Bill Clinton.

The accusation was disproven fairly easily and quickly, in a Des Moines Register piece that I can't seem to find. tl;dr version: the tiny handful of "bad" registrations were honest mistakes like missing apartment numbers or bad handwriting. Caucuses, in fact, are HARDER to game than elections, because you need live bodies, and people can only be in one place at once.

People say things in the pain of defeat that they may regret later. But it's been a long time, and those statements are still hanging, unrevised. And this isn't snark from the Twitter staffer. This is the candidate.

Iowans don't like being not liked. But we are forgiving, friendly folks. And, back to the point here, the Iowa Democratic Party's plan is a well-prepared, good faith effort to address the concerns about the Iowa caucuses that are legitimate.

But now that we've done so, is it too much to ask the person who most prominently raised those criticisms to come here and say something nice about our process?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Democratic Caucus Changes Part 3: County 100 and Caucus Math 101

Iowa Democrats have released their draft of the 2016 national delegate selection plan, which for the first time includes a military tele-caucus for troops overseas and satellite caucuses for people who can't physically be in their precincts.

In part one of my review I looked at background and basics, and in the second part I went through the logistics of how the military and satellite caucuses are supposed to work. Now it's time for the math. Get some coffee.

The Iowa Democratic caucuses are heavy on math and delegate counts. There's the 15% viability threshold, and there's delegates to county conventions who elect delegates to district and state conventions who elect delegates to the national convention.

And all this math is built on geography - precincts, counties, and congressional districts.

So how do you calculate the math without the geography? How do you assign the "votes" (repeat after me: caucuses are a party meeting, not an election) of people who are not in their precinct or county or even on the North American continent on caucus night?

Well, the Democrats are proposing a kind of geographic fiction. Think of the satellite caucuses as a 100th county that is not part of a congressional district.

The 100th county MUST be named Bloom County - in honor of vice presidential candidate Penguin Opus and former Iowa Citian Berke Breathed, and NOT for caucus critic Stephen Bloom.

And the military tele-caucus is a 101st County. Let's call that Afghanistan County, because I don't want to make a joke here.

The draft rules say that the Bloom County Satellite Caucuses, as a whole, will elect three delegates to the state convention.  The Afghanistan County military tele-caucus will elect two state convention delegates. The actual people who are the delegates will be chosen by the presidential preference group(s).

Unlike the other delegates to the state convention, the Bloom and Afghanistan County delegates will not be delegates to a congressional district convention, because Bloom and Afghanistan counties are not in any congressional district. (I really need to discuss that with my old pal redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering. He also deals with in fractional caucus math: "I used to work in New Jersey and if you asked for a half a body, well, I knew a guy.")

So how big a deal is five delegates to the state convention?  We can't really say until we know what to divide 5 by - and the state central committee doesn't set the overall size of the state convention till May. But I'll make some assumptions based on past years.

County delegation size at Iowa Democratic district and state conventions is determined by the county's top of ticket vote in the last two general elections. That means Obama 2012 and Hatch 2014.  You add those votes, decide your convention size, and allocate accordingly.

The 2008 state convention had 2500 delegate seats. In 2004, it was 3000. Based on my non-eidetic memory that range of allocation is typical, though in the end actual attendance is usually much lower. Assuming a convention size of 2500 from here on out, Bloom and Afghanistan Counties combined would be 0.2% of the state convention.

So how does that compare to a real county with land and pigs and stuff?

I simplified things and looked only at the 2012 results, because that's enough to prove the big picture point. The three delegates from the Bloom County satellite caucuses would be the equivalent of a county that cast 987 votes for Obama.  That would place the "county" at 98½th place, just below Adams County. The smallest population county, Adams cast 1028 Obama votes.

Obama's lowest vote total, and thus the smallest state convention delegation in my simplified example, was Osceola. It ranks 95th in population but is more Republican than Adams, and cast just 912 Obama votes. Perspective: All but one PRECINCT in Iowa City topped that.

The two delegates from the Afghanistan County military tele-caucus are the equivalent of a 658 Obama vote county, which would be the smallest but not by a lot. Again, the Hatch vote gets factored in too, but that wouldn't change much: the satellite and military caucuses are a very small part of the big picture. Assuming that the big picture is math, which it isn't.

Of course, if the convention size is smaller, those delegates are a bigger percentage. And these numbers are not set in stone. We're in a public comment period. If you think those shares should be bigger or smaller, comment.

But you don't know the math, that's what you keep me around for. So you're asking me: is that share fair?

How much each individual "vote" matters in the big picture depends on how many people show up, and there are no benchmarks to measure interest in the satellite caucuses yet.

Thinking out loud here, let's look at our hypothetical "not recommended but for the sake of argument" potential satellite caucus at Iowa City's Oaknoll retirement community. Iowa City Precinct 2, which includes Oaknoll, cast 1,228 votes for Obama - more than the three smallest counties, in just one precinct. (Again, that's only looking at the presidential vote - and factoring in 2014 in the one county that Jack Hatch won would just emphasize it more.)

So Iowa City Precinct 2 gets more state delegate equivalents than all of the statewide satellite caucuses combined. So Oaknoll residents may have more influence on the big picture contest, and certainly more influence over the other parts of the process like the central committees, if they attend the regular caucus.

As for the military: In my county in 2012, we had 172 registered Democrats request military and overseas ballots. Not all of those were returned, and some of those were from overseas civilians who would not be eligible for the military caucus. An absentee ballot is an easier process than signing up a month in advance for a conference call, and a caucus is not an election.

But that's A number. And that number is 0.3% of the 50,666 votes Obama got in Johnson County. We're comparing apples and oranges, and I see round fruit of similar size.

Also worth noting: there are a lot of variations between counties in attendance vs. delegate count which affect the "value" of each "vote."  In 2004 it took four times as many people to elect a state delegate in Johnson County as it did in Fremont County.

(Note: After 2004, the IDP stopped releasing by-county attendance figures. That's a change we could/should un-do. Look, we know you're never gonna give up the first alignment body count that the national press wants, but throw me a frickin bone here.)

So if the satellite and military guesstimates are off by that much, it's not unprecedented. Have I mentioned that caucuses are not an election?

(How to tell the difference: In an election, I work long hours and get paid overtime at my duly negotiated union rate. In a caucus, I work long hours doing much the same kind of work, I get paid nothing, and I take vacation days to do it. All ist klar, Herr Kommissar?) 
This is not about fundamentally changing our process, which would be a Very Bad Thing. It's about participation. This is about addressing two very specific criticisms of Iowa. And the point isn't making all the math perfect. The national critics don't care about the micro-details. The specific criticism is These People Can't "Vote." This is about showing that we're listening and making an effort.

2016 is an experiment. And to me, these relatively small numbers feel fair for an experiment. After this first effort gives us some data, the delegate count details can be adjusted for 2020.

Assuming we even HAVE a caucus in 2020. And that, along with some other cons and pros, is what I'm concluding this series with.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Democratic Caucus Process, Part 2: Satellite and Military Caucuses

Iowa Democrats released their draft 2016 caucus rules this past weekend.  In a change from past years, the Democrats are introducing a satellite and military component to the caucuses.

In part one of what feels like a four parter, I looked at the background of why this change is happening. Now, let's see just exactly how this is supposed to work.

The military caucus is easier to explain, so I'll start there so that you the reader and I the writer can get warmed up.

The IDP will host one statewide "military tele-caucus."  The plan is for some sort of conference call at Caucus Hour. Caucus alignment is scheduled for 7 PM February 1, Iowa standard time. That's 5:30 AM February 2 in Afghanistan.

Troops wanting to participate need to pre-register. The tentative deadline date is January 1, 2016. Presumably, that date will be adjusted if other states try to cheat the calendar and Iowa goes earlier than February 1.

The state party will provide a moderator/explainer, and then the participants will express presidential preferences and get split into groups. (Or, as the rest of the country will understand it: "get their votes counted.") Quoting directly here:
Military caucus goers will not elect delegates to county or district conventions, but the results of the caucus will be used to determine the presidential preference of 2 (two) state convention delegates. State convention delegates will be named by the Presidential Preference Group to whom the delegate is pledged.

The viability threshold for a presidential preference group must be 25% of the total caucus attendees.
Because the number of delegates is smaller, the percentage threshold is higher, but wait on the math.

The national folks really don't care much about the platform and committee parts of the caucuses. but service people will get a chance to pass platform resolutions, which will be dutifully passed on the the district and state platform committees.

The 2016 tele-caucus is limited to just service personnel, and won't include overseas civilians (or mobile virtual presence devices). IDP exec director Ben Foecke said overseas civilians may be included in 2020.

Just anecdotally, the expatriate issue was less of a big deal in 2008 than the troops issue. And if I understand right, overseas civilians would be able to participate in nomination politics through the Democrats Abroad organization.

(Remember when, late in the 2008 primaries, Obama got flak for making a references to "57 states?" From the context, us nomination geeks all knew he meant 57 contests: 50 states, DC, five territories, and number 57 is Democrats Abroad.)

So far, so good. But there's still a big question mark:
The military tele-caucus is contingent on the support and approval of the Department of Defense.
And historically, the Pentagon has not been a fan of caucuses. Don't get me wrong - the military is very supportive of troops voting in elections.  But the caucuses are not an election. They are a political party meeting, and anything that's openly partisan, even a very civic minded thing like the caucuses, is frowned upon. DoD's preferred answer would almost certainly be absentee ballots for a primary election, and preferably without party affiliation. See the disclaimers in Part One for why that's not on the table.

Iowa Democrats are pretty weak right now vis-a-vis the Pentagon. We have no senator, and Dave Loebsack just left the Armed Services committee to take Bruce Braley's old slot on Energy and Commerce. (Loebsack tried to keep both assignments but was turned down.) Who do we know who has 1) a warm spot in his heart for the Iowa Caucuses and 2) an extremely high military rank?

So, assuming all goes as planned, that's the Military Tele-Caucus. Everybody understand so far?

Great. Some of those concepts will help you follow the satellite caucuses: they're not tied to your residential geography, the time is the same as the regular caucus, and pre-registration is required (though for some reason the deadline is January 3, two days later than the military).

But the satellite caucuses won't be a teleconference. They'll be run much more like a regular precinct caucus, with bodies in a room.

The satellite caucuses are intended for "sites that have a sizable number of Democrats who are willing to participate in a satellite caucus but could not otherwise participate in their precinct caucuses."  Attendance is "open to all individuals who work and/or live at the satellite caucus site who would not otherwise be able to participate in their regular precinct caucus due to hardship."

That "work and/or live" phrase, and the pre-registration requirement, seems to be a firm limiting factor. The default is still traditional: go to the caucus for the precinct where you live.

For the sake of clarity I'm going to name two examples in my county. These are not recommendations; I'd rather see everyone who can be there at the regular caucuses. But I will say that these are the ONLY two places in my county that I think meet the criteria of "a sizable number of Democrats who... could not otherwise participate in their precinct caucuses."
Those two spots are 1) University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the very definition of must-do, can't leave work and 2) the Oaknoll retirement community, a large and politically active place with people of widely varying activity and mobility skills. In fact, when I was working on organizing our caucuses in late 2007, I had a very persistent ask from a very prominent Democrat for, in effect, a satellite caucus at Oaknoll, and I spent a lot of time patiently explaining that it was against the rules. As the rules stood then.

Satellite caucuses will have a little more of the traditional business. They won't elect central committee members, but people can volunteer and their names will be passed along to the county party. (Caveat: if you go to an Oaknoll satellite caucus, and the Iowa City Precinct 2 regular caucus fills their two central committee seats, you're out of luck.)

Platform stuff will also be passed along to the county party, and satellite caucus participants can sign up to be alternate delegates to their county conventions. Pro tip: at the county convention level, alternates almost always get seated. The only major exception was 2008.

Nomination papers "may" be out for signatures, though the logistics of that will need to be watched carefully. I can see a UIHC site drawing employee-participants from different legislative districts, different counties, and even different congressional districts. And since nomination papers for state and federal offices need to be collected by county, there's lots of room for confusion.

So the big question: how do satellite caucus sites get decided and happen? Big long cut and paste:
c. Satellite caucuses will be held at locations that have submitted an application to the State Central Committee and been approved by the body.
d. Applications must be submitted to the State Chair by Tuesday, November 3rd, and must include, but is not limited to, the following information:
i. Petitioner Name/Contact Information
ii. Site Address
iii. Demonstrable need for holding the caucus
iv. Approximate number of people affected
v. Estimated attendance
vi. Description of Caucus meeting space
vii. Hours the site is available
viii. Level of accessibility
ix. Site contact
x. Description of any special accommodations that must be made for the site
e. Applications will be reviewed by a sub-committee of the State Central Committee (Satellite Caucus Review Committee) comprised of individuals that have declared their neutrality for any Presidential Candidate.
f. Applications must be approved no later than December 3, 2015.
A lot of potential issues here, which I'll mostly address in the conclusion. But briefly:

"Applications must be approved by" is missing an all-important, just in case: "or denied."  (Update: I'm told this will get revised and included.) There needs to be some place in the approval process for some input from counties. And even though the proposed rules say the state party is responsible for lining up the satellite caucus chairs, don't be surprised if the task is delegated to the locals. (I say the petitioner is implicitly volunteering to chair their satellite caucus.)

To briefly touch on the math:
The total of satellite caucuses will be apportioned three state convention delegates by the State Central Committee. Each satellite caucus will divide according to presidential preference group, and report their presidential strength to the State Party.

State convention delegates will be named by the Presidential Preference Group to which the delegate is pledged.
Get your calculators charged up, because part three is about math.

But before that, one last thought that doesn't fit anywhere else.

There's a mention in the proposed rules that the Democrats are trying to pass legislation requiring employers to grant (with reasonable exceptions) unpaid time off work to attend caucuses. That's Senate File 437, which passed the Senate last week, with all 26 Democrats in support and all 24 Republicans opposed.

On the Senate side it was handled through the State Government committee, but in the Republican controlled House the Labor committee is dealing with it. Yesterday it was referred to a subcommittee of Republicans Greg Forristall and Larry Sheets and Democrat Bruce Hunter. The fact that it's being defined as a partisan issue and an employer-labor issue makes me... pessimistic on its chances in the House.

Dems Release Draft Of Caucus Changes

This past weekend, Iowa Democrats released the first draft of their National Delegate Selection Plan, and with it, more specific details about some first time changes in the first in the nation caucuses.

The draft rules are a 48 page read and most of it is similar to past rules (2012 for comparison). We're in the first days of a month long "public feedback" period, and this is my contribution. This is going to be a multi-parter rolled out over the week. Today I'm looking at background. Later posts will look at the logistics of the new Democratic "satellite caucus" processes, how those will affect caucus math, and finally at the pros and cons and possible pitfalls.

(If you're a pro journalist or if you just have all day free to write and want to scoop me, well goody for you. Me, I have a day job.)

Iowa's two parties are dealing with very different sets of issues going into 2016, both based on our last contested cycles. Republicans, coming off the dead-heat, changing winner result of 2012, are worried about result certification and the process of "declaring" a winner and about party officers staying neutral. And, in a lesson they learned hard in 2012, they're worried about teaching people that they need to stick around after the straw vote and actually elect the delegates.

Those are pretty much non-issues on our side. Democrats are all about rule rewrites, like we are every cycle, and about participation. We were much criticized in 2008, over both our first in the nation role and for our Must Be Present To Play rules. And frankly there was a lot of overlap between those complaints and Hillary Clinton's support. It was made clear to us early on this cycle that if we wanted to keep First we would need to address some of the participation issues affecting shift workers and military personnel.

And, complicating things, that we would have to do it in a way other than a simple absentee ballot, which New Hampshire's secretary of state would likely consider an "election" rather than a "caucus."

I dropped out of grad school, but not before memorizing the phrase "While the following issues merit further research, they are beyond the parameters of this study":
  • The whole question of which order of states is fair, whether we should have national primaries or rotating regional contests, and the value of being First.
  • The whole question of caucuses vs. primaries, and the question of whether we should let New Hampshire's objections determine that.
  • The Democratic Party's refusal to release an in-the-door, first alignment "vote count." 
If you want to keep reading, buy into this much realpolitik for the sake of argument: First Is Valuable, Iowa wants to and should keep it, and to keep it we need to deal with New Hampshire. Also assume, which seems safe since Iowa has resisted it so strong for so long, that New Hampshire has an objection to a combination of binding results and a vote total. (As we all learned in 2012, the Iowa Republican "vote total" is not binding on the national delegates.)

This plan appears to be the first formal indication that Iowa Democrats are planning to caucus on Monday, February 1. Republicans formally selected that date in August.

That's the latest caucus date since 1996 (February 12), which matters a lot to me, here in a college town. The last decent student-friendly caucus date was 2000 (January 24).  2004 was January 19, the day before UI classes started and also - this drew complaints from African American and civil rights activists - MLK Day. The January 3 dates in 2008 and 2012 devastated turnout in our campus precincts.

February 1 might actually stick this time. The schedule leapfrogging that plagued 2003, 2007 and 2011 and forced Iowa to make multiple date changes seems to have settled down this cycle.

It's vital to the caucus process that the two parties keep the same date (which we almost didn't in 2014). David Yepsen used to argue that it was a strain on buildings and parking and other resources, and there's some truth to that. But fact is, the shared date and time is the check and balance that keeps people from caucusing in both parties. Just one person going to a Democratic caucus on Monday and a Republican caucus on Thursday, then having a press conference to brag about it, could prove fatal to First.

That shared date and time is one of the reasons Iowa Democrats chose a "satellite caucus" process, rather than what I initially preferred, a very tightly controlled proxy process.

There's been some criticism from Republicans of bringing "absentee voting" into the caucuses.  But what the Democrats propose is not an "absentee vote" at all. You still have to be in a designated spot at Caucus Moment. The difference is, that designated spot may be at your nursing home or in your break room at work or in front of your webcam, rather than the caucus site for the precinct you live in.

The idea is imported from Nevada in 2008, when they held satellite caucuses at the big hotels and casinos for the staff. Iowa has few places that are as big and as 24 hour, but the idea is to show that we're trying.

Our Republican friends also need to understand that our fates are tied together here. The tradition is we work together for First In The Nation, but we each set our own rules. Republicans don't have to LIKE our rules, but if Democrats lose First In The Nation, Republicans almost certainly do, too. And our national committee is telling us that if we want to keep First, we HAVE to make a good faith effort to be more inclusive of shift workers and troops.

You do support the troops, right? Good. Then you can support the Democratic Party's effort to help them participate. Next post, I'll explain just how that's supposed to work.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Bibi, BS, and Boycotts

defending Iowa as First In The Nation is a topic that suddenly seems too hot to handle, I'm going to tackle something less controversial: Israel.

Maybe I shouldn't care what happens in elections in other countries, but this week's cote casts a big shadow in our own politics, foreign and domestic. So I was disappointed at the apparent victory of Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Not everyone agrees; Yousef Munayyer argues that a moderate victory would have taken pressure off  Israel, and that Netanyahu's win means the rest of the world doubling down on sanctions and boycotts.

Netanyahu's exact coalition may shift a little, but the outcome is essentially more of the same. In the end, it all came down to, as the old joke about the American advisor consulting with the Israeli candidate goes, the All Important Jewish Vote. But the Arab vote was an issue - Netanyahu made it so, concern-trolling about high Arab turnout and at the last minute stating his absolute opposition to a Palestinian state.

Today, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell, Netanyahu tried to backpedal on that. Bullshit is one of my least favorite things about politics. And even by the standards of politics and diplomacy, Netanyahu was especially disingenuous today.

I wish Netanyahu would just admit what everyone already understands. And I wish the American media would acknowledge it, too.  Netanyahu's goal is and always has been: everything between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan/Dead Sea in a state specifically and constitutionally defined as an explicitly Jewish state.

The answer to the Palestinian issue? Palestinians going somewhere else.

That's clearly good domestic politics for Netanyahu, based on the election results. But it isn't a viable answer.

One of my deepest and most naive beliefs is that America was founded as and should always be the universal land of refuge. That may seem like a tangent here at the end. But it isn't. It's a Grand Unifying Principle.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A clarification

I spent/wasted several hours and several thousand words of writing trying to explain this, then deleted it. (Which explains why nothing else has appeared here in the past week. Unlike some writers, I spend a lot of time at a Job job and this is only a hobby.)

Hillary Clinton may never be my first caucus choice. But she may. It depends on what the rest of the field looks like.  I still hope the field grows.

But I would gladly support Hillary Clinton in a general election.

In contrast, since unbelievably this subject has come up again: It's fairly well known I did not vote for Al Gore in the 2000 general election.

I have no regrets, and under no circumstances would I ever consider voting for him.

I hope everyone understands and remembers that difference as I follow and critique all the candidates this year.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Thoughts on THE press conference

1. This was about control. It was always only ever about control. Everybody in the politics and journalism universe knows that, understands that, and also understands that the rules of the game keep Hillary Clinton from ever saying that.

2. Republicans will over-reach. They always do with the Clintons.

3. The media will beat this into the ground, too, because it's their Right To Know prerogatives that are being tread on. But they will ultimately fail because:

4. The non-Politicojournalism universe doesn't care. They will lump this under the category They're All Crooks Anyway. Usually, when Real People make that assumption,  they're more wrong than they can even imagine. But in this case there's a seed of truth: there's ALWAYS a way to communicate back-channel. This is a difference only in degree, not in kind.

5. This will not define Hillary Clinton. You get defined by their opponent, you lose. Just ask President Romney and Senator Braley. But Hillary, a member of the First Name Only Level Of Fame Club, is the most "defined" non-incumbent candidate since at least Ike (the Nickname Only Level Of Fame). Which also means:

6. This will not sway one vote. 2016, on both sides, will be about base turnout, and the slim handful of remaining true swing voters (5% or less) will be swayed by a last minute event or will sit it out (especially likely if it's a Clinton-Bush race.)  No one is going to switch from Hillary Clinton to Scott Walker or Jeb Bush over this.

As for the primary, the loyalists will dig in. The Democratic renegades wishing for a Warren or a Sanders are already there, all they need is a candidate. But in the end, they'll vote for the Democratic nominee. Ralph Nader and the coin landing on its edge electoral math of 2000 set the cause of a Left Party back at least a lifetime. Something that I'm sure annoys Bernie Sanders to no end.

7. The race I'm truly scared of in my college town is Clinton-Paul. A Democrat needs 65% in Johnson County to win Iowa, and while Hillary vs. Walker could inch close to Obama's 2008 70%, she'll have trouble breaking 60 against someone perceived as anti-war and pro-weed.

8. The media insanity at the UN today is just a taste of what will happen once she actually announces, and makes it that much less likely that Clinton will do, or even be able to do, the kind of real, interactive events that are expected in Iowa and New Hampshire.

9. The recent announcement that she's staffing up in Iowa, and hopes to put the nomination to rest in the first contest, is a good sign. But Iowans don't want to see staffers. (Staffers ask you to do actual work.) The expectation in Iowa, built over 40 years by dozens of candidates of both parties, is Quality Time.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Johnson County Dems Don't Really Caucus, Do Elect Officers

The "off year caucus" is one of the odder things Iowa Democrats do. The off-year caucus is NOT the caucus in the gubernatorial non-presidential year. That's a caucus.

The off-year caucus is the meeting in the ODD numbered years. In practice, it's a slightly bigger county central committee meeting, with a little more crowd building.

Johnson County Democrats usually build a crowd by combining the off year caucus with officer elections, and about 50 folks showed up Thursday night. We got a little presidential politicking on the side.

Martha Hedburg will lead the JCDems through the 2016 caucuses and general election. She takes over from Gerene Denning, who served a one-year term (taking over when Mike Carberry stepped down to run for supervisor). Denning stays on board as the finance chair.

Elections were uncontentious - we've had some doozies in the past - as everyone was unopposed. A few new faces, a few old faces in new roles. 

Jim Tate takes over from Hedburg as first vice chair (what my Republican readers would call "co-chair" ans usually the point person for GOTV). Steven Damm, previously secretary, is now second vice chair, traditionally the parade commander job. Mike Jesse is the new secretary and Karla Smith is in charge of publicity.  Peter Hansen remains treasurer, and I was re-elected to whatever I do. (Which this year means a lot of the caucus logistics.)

Not all the jobs get elected on the same cycle. Dennis and Robin Roseman hold over as platform chairs, and Melva Hughes remains affirmative action chair. The parliamentarian is appointed by the chair, but Tom Larkin is staying in that role.

With less than a year before the real caucuses, presidential politics were on everyone's mind. Worth noting: An announcement today that Martin O'Malley will be at Cedar County's off year caucus event on the 21st. This is what people running in the Iowa caucuses are expected to do.

Beth Ann Farvour, an organizer for the Run Warren Run effort, was the only representative of any campaign or pseudo-campaign on hand. "We're showing (Warren) she has the support out here in the early states," Farvour said. Many in the crowd jotted down the location of a Tuesday night "community action" meeting in Iowa City.

In Johnson County, at least, Democrats are eager for a competitive caucus. "We were told who was going to be the nominee in 2008," said Supervisor Rod Sullivan, a very early Obama backer in 2007, "and we picked someone else." (Trivia: In late 2007, the five then-supervisors were backing five different presidential candidates. Bill Richardson was the odd candidate out.)

"The best thing that ever happened to me was a primary," State Senator Kevin Kinney told the crowd.

Despite the active Ready For Hillary effort and yesterday's high profile (and good call) hire of Vilsack hand Matt Paul to manage Clinton's caucus effort, no one was on hand to advocate for Clinton. Maybe more surprising: no one for the active local Bernie Sanders group was in attendance. (The core of the local Sanders supporters have a strained relationship with the official Democratic Party, dating back to the Dick Gephardt-Paul Simon fight of 1988. No. I'm not kidding. It's a good story, but too big a tangent to go into now.)

Kinney and fellow Senator Bob Dvorsky gave a long legislative update with lots of Q and A. (Today was the first big "funnel" day when legislation dies. As if on cue, Minority Leader Bill Dix was tweeting out all the legislation he couldn't pass thanks to Kevin Kinney taking over Sandy Greiner's seat. Think Scott Walker, only meaner.)  Joe Bolkcom was home battling a nasty cold, and the House delegation was still in Des Moines.

All five county supervisors were also on hand. (Janet Lyness made sure they didn't break the open meetings law, and I was on standby to take minutes just in case.) The Board passed next year's budget this morning, though Rettig said state property tax "reform" made the job harder. And new guy Carberry said he's gotten the same advice from all four colleagues: "just vote like I do & you'll be OK."

And in what may be a first, no one showed up with any resolutions to pass.  Our reputation may be permanently damaged.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Bcc: Hillary Clinton

Well, at least Hillary Clinton is smarter about privacy than David Petraeus was, getting someone to set up a private domain name rather than leaving his love notes in a DropBox account.
So how much does Hillary Clinton's private email account matter? Probably less than the media thinks. This controversy is magnified because it presses a berzerk button for journalists: The Right To Know. But do Real Voters care?

In our polarized partisan political culture, which is All About That Base Base Base and where only about 5% are actual swing voters, is ANYONE actually going to choose Scott Walker or Jeb Bush over Hillary Clinton a year and a half from now just because of this issue?  The overwhelming consensus among apolitical and anti-political "independents" is: They're All Crooks Anyway. (You couldn't script a better race to turn off independents than Clinton-Bush.)

Yes, it's better to do as much as possible in the open.  But the reality is: public people sometimes need to have private conversations. It's simply not possible to say and do everything in front of everybody.  Remember the old definition of a gaffe: inadvertently speaking the truth?

For some reason people accept this in day to day life.  Do YOU always tell the boss everything you're thinking to their face? Not if you like having a job. We think long and hard in private, or discuss with trusted colleagues,before we offer the toned down and diplomatic (see what I did there) version to the higher-ups.

But in politics, we resent it. Yet we contradict ourselves, by at the same time expecting it. The faux "exploratory committees." The sure loser insisting "the only poll that counts is Election Day" or the party chair insisting the candidate has a chance. The Supreme Court nominee insisting they've never decided what they really think of Roe-Wade. We don't vote for Prophets Of Doom. 

Any journalist who's ever fished for a blind quote understands the value of going off the record, and willingly participates.  Yet it doesn't keep them from being self-righteous when they Bust someone for Official Secrecy.

So the issue here isn't privacy. It's the AMOUNT of privacy and the WAY it was done. As Chris Cilizza rightly notes, the political problem is that it plays into the pre-conceived notions of Clinton as secretive and scheming. And paranoid - though it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Which probably WOULD matter - if Hillary Clinton had viable, live primary opposition. Instead, reluctant Dems have little choice but to circle the wagons around the Presumptive Nominee while grumbling in private. Jim Webb or even Martin O'Malley ain't viable, live primary opposition. There's only three or four viable, rock star level potential rivals out there: Joe Biden, on rank and Bidenness, and Bernie Sanders OR, not both, Elizabeth Warren on ideology. And Sanders still has to meet the necessary precondition of joining the Democratic Party.

And it says here that Al Gore is coming to Iowa in May. Now THAT would make me ready for Hillary.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Netanyahu Makes A Breakthrough - But Not The One He Wanted

In 10 or 15 years, I think we'll look back on March 3, 2015 and see it as a watershed moment in the domestic politics of American foreign policy.

Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign speech in front of the U.S. Congress will be looked back on as the point at which blind unquestioning support of Israeli policy began to become a liability in American domestic politics, rather than an asset.

A partisan split is already clear. Republicans, especially the Christian Conservative wing, are still following the Likud Party line. But within the Democratic Party, it's becoming an issue we can almost talk about. (Thanks to our own Dave Loebsack for skipping the speech today.)

Used to be, when I was even mildly critical of Israeli policy, I was beaten up hard.  Getting called a Nazi - no exaggeration, literally getting called a Nazi - intimidated me from writing about the subject for about five years.
But recently, I've been testing the waters. A comment here, a tweet there. 

Saying Hillary Clinton should be asked, "Name one major Middle East issue on which you disagree with AIPAC" should she ever demean herself to taking a nonscripted public question in Iowa. 

Noting the contradiction that apparently it's OK for Israel to have nukes, but not Iran. 

Posting the occasional link to the map of the original 1947 UN proposed partition of Palestine.

Using the word "Palestine."

Even a whole post critiquing DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in which here one-sidedness on the Middle East was a leg of its tripod construction.

And my tentative toe in the Celebrity Hot Tub has gotten more praise than criticism. It feels like a corner has been turned, a willingness to at last consider that there are two sides to the story.  Here's hoping we can keep honest discussion going into the presidential race.

Unfortunately, this election's dynamic won't help that. Only the Paul branch of the GOP is willing to reconsider the issue.  And Hillary Clinton, temperamentally and ideologically, is exactly the wrong candidate for this discussion.  (Also notable that her recent message-testing polls focused entirely on domestic economics, and did not touch foreign policy. Or, for that matter, social issues.)

My only hope is that as president, Clinton can do a Nixon Goes To China on the issue.

I've said there's one place I'd rather see Hillary Clinton than Iowa.  Now I'm going to name it.  That place is Palestine. 

And what I want to hear here say there is "Mister Netanyahu, tear down this wall."

Monday, March 02, 2015

Martin and Mikulski

Martin O'Malley spent a fair amount of time in Iowa last fall. The term-limited Maryland governor made at least four stops for statewide and legislative candidates just in my county.  It's the kind of thing potential presidential candidates DO at that point in the cycle, and in the year leading up to the caucuses.
Just saying.

Sure, Hillary did the Harkin Steak Fry and some Bruce Braley stuff, but she wasn't at the tiny meet and greets with long-shot statewide candidates (Jack Hatch) or key legislative candidates (Kevin Kinney) like O'Malley was, and like past contenders were in 2006 and 2002.

But O'Malley, while greeted warmly, seemed to get little traction against The Inevitable. And while Biden would get a pass because he's a sitting VP and Sanders would get a pass because of ideology, barring those two the Democratic base won't settle for another Old Straight White Guy.  (Jim Webb has nothing to lose, and in the context of a one on one race against Hillary Clinton, is about a step above Some Dude.  Prediction: if the caucus is between Hillary Clinton and Jim Webb, Uncommitted finishes second.)

Which is why Warren is the ideal Clinton challenger; takes gender out of it. And age - there's a generational dynamic that I saw with Hillary supporters back in `07. It's not just that they want Woman President - they want Woman President to be from the founding mothers generation of feminism. (Similar dynamic also explains people favoring Monica Vernon over Anesa Kajtazovic.) And Warren, just 18 months younger than Clinton, would defuse that.

One of the great founding mothers, of course, is Barbara Mikulski. Hard as it is to believe, as recently as December 1978 there were zero women in the Senate. When Mikulski was elected in 1986, she was one of just two (the year Mikulski won, Florida Republican Paula Hawkins lost her re-elect, while Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas held over), and she was the only Democrat - the first female Democrat elected without a husband as a predecessor.  That recently. 1986. I have t-shirts older than that.

Mikulski's retirement today sets off a ripple effect in Maryland politics much like Tom Harkin's retirement did in Iowa last cycle. And it may ripple all the way up into the presidential race.

As I noted, O'Malley was term limited out of office last year. He and Mikulski are old allies - O'Malley ran that `86 Senate campaign for Mikulski. And the Senate race may be a good exit strategy for O'Malley since his other ambitions seem stalled. NEVER MIND.

He may have a lot of competition. Unlike Harkin's seat, the Maryland seat seems safely Democratic, and Maryland has a deep bench of ambitious Democrats.  Some of them may be looking to Annapolis rather than the District, though.  O'Malley's lieutenant governor failed to get across the finish line and, in one of the year's bigger upsets, Republican Larry Hogan won. That challenge may look better than a Senate bid for some.

In any case, it would be fun to eavesdrop on all the conversations Maryland Dems will be having in the critical next 48 hours.