Saturday, December 17, 2016

I have to write the electoral college post

The Electoral College meets Monday so I've run out of time to write an Electoral College Post that tries to transcend the obligatory.

Because what's to say? Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2 percent but fell 100,000 votes combined short in four key states, so Donald Trump gets to be "president" (sic).

I used that construct -  "President" (sic) Bush - for the first year of this blog, as a snarky protest. I probably won't resume it; the nature of our politics has changed enough in the last 16 years that even the moral high ground of the popular vote win will serve as no restraint. Win with an asterisk, govern like it was a landslide.
Iowa Democrats seem determined to cede the moral high ground of the popular vote win. In the current working draft of their caucus review committee report, they write:
"Candidates for President cannot 'win' the Iowa Precinct Caucuses by running up vote totals in the largest cities with the densest populations of liberal voters."
Which, um, is exactly how Hillary won the national popular vote...

(Yeah, I've seen the whole caucus review committee draft report. Waiting to hear from a few people before I decide how hard I'm going to rip it apart. They DID say I was more valuable on the outside...)

I've been ranting against the electoral college since I was in high school speech. Which made it extra ironic that I actually RAN for it for a couple days this year, at the behest of the Clinton campaign. I lost to a Bernie kid, who then lost to the Republican slate. Also ironic that I list "Electoral College" as my alma mater on Facebook, to avoid getting invited to alumni stuff from my actual school. (That doesn't work either.)

I always though that what it would take to abolish the electoral college would be just ONE post-1888 incident whether the second place candidate assumed office. That finally happened in 2000, and then... nothing.

In fact, the issue barely came up, because all the attention was on the opera buffa of the Florida recount. I still can't hear the name "Chad" without gagging, and if you work in an election office you have already heard every joke WAY too many times. None of that would have mattered without the electoral college, because 537 votes one way or another would not have impacted Al Gore's half million vote national win.

I still like to think there were 538 Prince fans in Florida who were really mad at Tipper.

But the Florida distraction wasn't the real reason electoral college reform was a non-starter. In my high school speech naivete I failed to account for partisanship.

See, the only way a Republican could support electoral college reform, in 2001 or now, would be to tacitly acknowledge the illegitimacy of their presidential "win." and in our hyper-partisan times, that's too much to realistically expect.

Amending the constitution requires a consensus-level super majority - 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states. We last had that much consensus about anything in 1971 when we decided that 18 year olds were adults, because "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" was too powerful of an argument and we still needed draftees for Vietnam. So we locked 18 Is Adult into the fundamental law of the land, then backed away from that principle with a rider to a highway bill. But that's apparently OK because drunk college kids are jerks. Yeah, still pissed.

(The 27th Amendment limiting congressional pay raises that came out of nowhere in 1992 kinda sorta doesn't count. If it hadn't already been sitting on the shelf gathering dust for 200 years there wouldn't have been the momentum to push it.)

These days you literally can't get 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states to agree on basic scientific facts. Literally. So getting 2/3 of a Republican Congress and 3/4 of a set of 50 state legislatures that are Republican dominated to openly acknowledge that their Republican president was unfairly elected and that it means we need to change our fundamental law? Let's not waste energy on that.

We've already wasted too much energy demanding security briefings and going through all the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving. Anger: people who didn't vote protesting the election results. Denial: recounts in states that were not recount-close.

And especially bargaining: let's cut a deal with the "good" Republican electors and all vote for John Kasich. As if that would have made any policy difference. Trump without the tweets.

The last defecting elector was in 2004, under dopey circumstances: a Minnesota Democrat accidentally voted for John Edwards for both president AND vice president. (How do his extramarital shenanigans look now compared to the Pussy Grabber In Chief?)

I expected defecting electors the last couple cycles, on the losing Republican side, figuring some Ron Paul die hard had made it onto an elector slate. I was wrong, but I expect it again this cycle, on BOTH sides.  Below the radar: How many Bernie or Bust people snuck onto Democratic elector slates? Even money that there's as many Democratic votes against Hillary as there are Republican votes against Trump.

But the Grand Bargain of a Democratic/anti-Trump Republican "deliberative" electoral college is a non-starter, and I think that's for the best. It would have undercut that moral high ground of the popular vote win, in a media climate that calls itself "Objectivity" but really means the false equivalency of Both Sides Do It.

We just have to hunker down, fight what we can, and win what we can, which will be more hearts and minds than laws and budgets for the next few years. Then, when we finally get it back, we make the electoral college a priority. Because in the 21st century it's simply inexcusable that the person with less votes wins the election.

Soon after the 2000 election I remember lecturing a group of Russian visitors to our office and trying to explain the electoral college in the aftermath of Bush v. Gore, and they laughed at me.  They'd only had about ten years of democracy in the last thousand, a window that was sadly soon to slam shut, and even they knew that the person with the most votes wins.

Could be worse; could be China.

It's been 8 years, Axl, so that next album is due in 2025.

So I've risen above the obligatory through a set of tangents; time to land this zeppelin. Stop that.

Yeah, I know federalism. That's what the US Senate is for and what state governments are for. Iowans, stop playing the "a popular vote would make Iowa less powerful and important" card. We already have twice the US Senators our population would call for, and after this election we can hardly call ourselves a swing state anymore. Of the six states that flipped from Obama to Trump, Iowa swung the hardest and wasn't even close. All that's  left is the loss of the caucuses and we're just another speck in Flyover Land.

Just because the Founding Fathers (yep, I'll be "politically incorrect" because Donald says that's OK and because they were in fact all men) came up with the idea of the electoral college doesn't mean that it's suited to the 21st Century. There's a lot of archaic stuff in there, like 3/5 of a person and quartering of soldiers and titles of nobility and the concept that owning a weapon is somehow an absolute and fundamental right.

Which wasn't exactly what they meant... but as long as the NRA continues to in effect argue that mass shootings are the price we pay for "freedom," we're stuck with that false interpretation. I go back and forth between which thing in the Constitution I most want to change: the Second Amendment or the electoral college. Till Monday when they meet, it's the electoral college, unless we get another mass shooting tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Shortwave Radio Top Ten

It's my birthday, dammit, and I don't feel like writing about politics. Instead you get a music post about my new OCD hobby, the dying world of shortwave radio.

I was fascinated by long-distance AM radio in the 70s, back when the clear channel stations like WLS and WGN from Chicago and KAAY in Little Rock played music all night. And as some of you know I had a brief radio career as a DJ (country!) and reporter.

One recent night as I was spinning through the shortwave radio dial looking for anything other than Radio Havana or the apocalypically paranoid evangelist Brother Stair, I got lucky, picked up some salsa from Radio Nacional Brasilia, and decided I needed a top ten playlist of best songs about shortwave and long-distance radio.

I set a couple rules: Songs should be primarily about radio as a medium, not about music. And although CB radio is technically in the 11 meter band, which would be roughly 27000 AM (27.0 or so FM), I have banned all of the CB novelty hits of the 70s. (I should do a Truck Driver Top Ten, but I can't seem to get past the list's obvious number one, "Six Days On The Road" by Dave Dudley. Told you I was once a country DJ.)

Now, on with the countdown.

Number 10. Radio Birdman the band. Because you would definitely listen to a station called Radio Birdman.

Number 9. "Radio Nowhere," Bruce Springsteen - Almost left this off because of my Radio Not Music rule. There's a whole genre of songs denouncing broadcasting commercialism: "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello, "Capital Radio One" by the Clash, "Radio Song" by R.E.M. This song fits in that tradition but only makes the list because Radio Nowhere sounds like a pirate station name and because Springsteen.

Number 8. "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo. Technically the border blasters like Wolfman Jack's XERF were AM stations (what shortwave geeks call MW or "medium wave"), but I'm old enough to remember their last days in the 70s and the alien, clandestine feel was there. ("I'm on a wavelength far from home.") This song was a mainstay of my first radio show, a college station in the 80s. Inspirational verse: "I wish I was in Tijuana / eating barbecued iguana"). Honorable mention: "Border Radio" by the Blasters, "Heard It On The X" by ZZ Top.

Number 7. "Pirate Radio," John Hiatt - A lot of this is about the music, but clandestine and questionably legal radio is a priceless part of the broadcast legacy. And if you REALLY want to get clandestine:

Number 6. "Guerrila Radio," Rage Against The Machine. This band actually saw themselves as revolutionaries, hiding in the hills with a transmitter. The other dudes were later in Audioslave, but what HAS frontman Zach de la Rocha been doing the last 15 years, anyway? Honorable mention: Green Day's new "Revolution Radio."

Number 5. "This is Radio Clash," the Clash - RATM imagines themselves in the hills but Joe Strummer does it right and sets up his own station in New York City, brands it with his band's identity, and presents a newscast that's still way too relevant. Honorable mention: "Radio Head,", the Talking Heads and yes that is where the other band got its name.

Number 4. "Wavelength," Van Morrison - Not really ABOUT radio but the title is too perfect, not to mention the synth part that swirls like static and "I hear the Voice of America calling on my wavelength."

Number 3. "Radio Free Europe," R.E.M. - A major moment in rock history as the first single by a major band. The album is aptly named "Murmur," as Michael Stipe's mixed way down vocals are like a distant station you're struggling to hear.

Number 2. "London Calling," the Clash. They get to have two in the top ten because they're my favorite band. The iconic title song from their masterpiece album cops its name from a long time BBC top of the hour ID.

Number 1. "Radio Ethiopia," Patti Smith - It was really hard not to slot the Clash into number one. But this song's signal jamming intro, epic length and collision of styles makes it feel like a trip through the overseas dial.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Beret Bids Are Back!

It's the giving season and time for my SECOND beret auction of 2016. The previous one was for the Johnson County Democrats, but I'm sure a lot of my GOP and non-Democrat friends would love to be seen sporting this lovely head topper.

So this is a non-partisan charitable beret auction on behalf of the Johnson County employees' charity drive. Proceeds may go to either United Way or Iowa, at the choice of the winning bidder.

Official Deeth Blog Berets have raised $631 for charity the last couple years. Peter Byler had the winning (and record) bid last year at $211. We're starting out at 5 bucks this year, which is $3.01 more than I paid for it. The tag from the La Crosse, WI Goodwill is still attached proving that it is not only the kind you find in a second hand store, but was actually found in a second hand store.

Johnson County employees may bid here.  Non-employees may contact me by any means necessary - email to, Twitter direct message, Turtle Express, Facebook message, Special D, or shortwave radio numbers station (they really exist and I've heard them). The deadline for bids is noon Tuesday, December 13. I'll keep the current leading bid prominently displayed on all my accounts.

I Don't Have The Answers

I knew and wrote long before the election that Iowa City was a terrible vantage point. And the normal for Johnson County results bore out that The People's Republic was immune to Trumpism, an urban/academic island in a sea of red getting redder.

The long-time coordinated campaign model that's under attack in a hundred Smart Takes WORKED in Johnson County. We produced the numbers we always produce, the numbers that through 2012 were enough to meet the target for a statewide win. But in 2014 and again in 2016, while we held our own, the rest of the state slipped away.

If you're reading a state level political blog, you've already seen multiple takes and countless tweetstorms about The Democrats' Rural Problem. 

One of the common complaints in those smart takes is the archetype of the staffer kid from the east coast dropped into a small Iowa town and expected to organize with no local ties. But that works in Iowa City because everyone here is either from someplace else or used to dealing with people from someplace else.

It's been 20 years since I lived, briefly, in a small town and ran a losing race in a rural legislative district. I learned a lot, and some of that knowledge still matters. But much of it is outdated enough that my knowledge is even more "outsider" than it was before.

I'm not convinced The Rural Problem is THE biggest problem nationally. I've seen, but can no longer remember to attribute, the argument that Hillary fell between the cracks. The Emerging Democratic Majority of non- White Straight Males that's been discussed for 15 years is growing, but not fast enough to overcome the Farm Belt-Rust Belt losses. This argument holds that we're on the right track and just need more time. But it assumes that the voting rights setbacks that almost certainly cost us Wisconsin and North Carolina won't get worse.

So maybe The Rural Problem isn't the biggest thing nationally, but it's the biggest problem here in Iowa. The bazillion dollar question is: How much of this is because of the decline of the non-coastal non-metropolitan economy? Yes, those things will be hard but they can be addressed. If that's the problem.

But how much of the Democratic problem with rural America is the cultural cluster: gender and race and immigration? How much is the abortion stuff and the gay stuff and the trans stuff and the gun stuff? Or, even worse, how much of it is European style ethno-nationalism?

After thinking long and hard my bet is more of the real Rural Problem is somewhere in there, rather than in the euphemistic excuse of the economy. I think it's somewhere on the less extreme edge of that cluster, in a generalized zone of fear and discomfort and confusion rather than as an emerging neo-fascism.

Assuming that's the real problem, it makes a solution harder. Democrats cannot turn our backs on the core of our own coalition to chase votes that we're currently losing. We can only work to win over hearts and minds and that's a long game.

And we have to do that with some issue realities that will make it harder for us.

One, the NRA's de facto position that mass shootings are simply the price we pay for a "free" society is no longer tolerable. And there's not a way to make it harder for people who shouldn't have guns to get guns without also making it harder for law abiding people to get guns.

And two, climate change isn't solvable without major lifestyle changes.  I suspect if pressed, many climate change "deniers" will admit to the science but are uncomfortable and/or fearful of the lifestyle changes that the solutions will require. It's basic physics: it takes energy to heat stuff, cool stuff and move stuff. (It's not just isolated small towns that need to deal with this; it's long commute suburbs and refrigerated cities in the desert and tropics too.) There are certain realities of the information age, climate change era economy that are especially challenging for communities below a certain size. And that calls into question the long term viability of some sparsely populated areas.

A couple more random thoughts on the road forward:

We can stop worrying about Big Wall Street buying our party, because that money is gone forever. There will still be high-dollar donors, sure, but the financial industry is gone. We will of necessity be shifting our finance model.

And the worst thing we can do now is re-fight the primary. I took the 2000 nomination fight hard and I spend about three years going through the room at events evaluating people in those terms: "Bradley, Gore, Gore, Bradley, Bradley, Gore Gore Gore." It was emotionally toxic - bad politics and bad for me personally.

So the WORST thing Dems can do now is evaluate everything in terms of "Bernie, Hillary, Hillary, Bernie, Bernie," or define that nebulous word "progressive" in those terms either. We don't have the political strength to waste any of our energy on an in-fight. I personally don't have the strength for it either.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Post-Election (Personal) Plan

It seems every Democratic writer worth their bandwidth and every Iowa Democrat with an opinion has written their manifesto of What Went Wrong and Where Do We Go From Here. I've of course been considering the question, but have had little to say. In fact, this began as an intro to my attack on that issue, but has instead turned into a separate post, and yet another indication that my head still isn't in the game yet.

Instead,  I've retreated into the personal more that usual. The end of an election, any election, even one where I'm happy with the outcome, is a major life milestone for me. It's essentially the start of my New Year more than the late December/early January holidays are. I go through a big emotional crash bordering on depression as the excitement suddenly stops.  (One New Year's Resolution is to write more openly about my mental health.) This cycle is even more of a milestone, as I've essentially been going non-stop since I started my serious caucus prep work in August 2015.

I did a little theater in college and that's the only thing I can compare it to. You spend weeks and months building and planning and dress rehearsing a show, spending long hours with the same people. There's an absolute, The Show Must Go On deadline. It all ends with an extremely long day - the theater tradition is you strike the set immediately after the last performance - and a late night party. (Cast parties are WAY better than even the best victory parties.)

Then it's over. The thing that was the central facet of your life for so long is gone. The people you practically lived with vanish and scatter. And even if the show was great or the election was won, that's depressing.

It's even more depressing when the outcome is disappointing. I've gone through election cycles not only in my current role as an an election office staffer but also as a volunteer, a journalist, and a candidate. But I NEVER worked harder than the cycle I was a staffer. And that crash has got to be especially hard this time; not only the defeat, but the end of the job AND the loss of opportunities for the next job.

One of my big mistakes that staffer cycle was that I didn't have a post-election plan, even to the extent of "finding my next job." It didn't help that nearly all my local candidates lost.

So even though job hunting isn't necessary for me, I've tried to make a post-election plan since about 2004.  I'm realizing now this would have been more useful to people BEFORE the election. But the writing muse is hitting me now, so I'll re-up it a couple weeks before the next election.

Some of these plans are better than others. In 2006 I got serious about my writing, and in 2012 I had a change in career direction with a new boss and an immediate mini-election season of three special elections in a row. Changes at Work are also part of this year's plan, as the new GOP Trifecta in Des Moines is likely to change election law significantly.

Other plans are less plausible this year, like the Packers 2010 playoff run. Football victory eased the pain of election defeat. Though I'm still mad that Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature, in addition to destroying a century of the Wisconsin Progressive Idea, also ruined the month that the Packers won the Super Bowl.

This year, I've done a week long vacation, which was also part of the 2004 plan. There is a lot of time off coming up as we complete the final stages of election close-out. The government employee holidays cluster tightly from Veteran's Day through MLK, and I'll enjoy them while I can. The nature of public employment is likely to change dramatically in this state come January. The is much scuttlebutt about Trump sending Terry Branstad to China, but I'll bet the beret that he stays in Des Moines long enough to sign the repeal of the Chapter 20 collective bargaining law, the My Precious he's been seeking for almost 30 years.

The snow held off long enough for me to clean out The Smallest Farm and yard. Even managed to harvest one last crop of beans and eggplants, since we didn't get a hard frost until about November 15. Picking hot-weather veggies in Iowa in November. Too bad climate change isn't real, huh.

I got a new tank for Shelley the turtle during the seven day workweeks of  late October and set it up on that first Veterans Day three day weekend. Sometimes, rather than thinking about solving the unsolvable,  it's just more rewarding for me to sit and watch her slow calm life. Bask in the sun lamp for hours - not sure who's lazier, her or the cat. Then go for a swim, with a combination of graceful gliding and floating and goofy awkward leg waving. As one on the autism spectrum I can definitely relate to hand flapping.

Also this year I've developed a new obsession with a geek stereotype hobby, short wave radio. I got my first cheap radio last year, as part of my post-election plan for the city election. (That one was a very big win for me emotionally, but the crash happens anyway.) Then a couple weeks back I got lucky and found a high-end radio at a steal of a price at Goodwill Reboot, and I've stretched a long wire the whole length of my football field sized lot as an antenna.

Short wave has declined as a medium in the internet era, as foreign services have shut down their broadcasts to North America. The only signals that are easy to pick up are religious broadcasters and Radio Havana.

Struggling to pick up an iffy signal from Cuba in my basement in the days after Castro's death has a deeply clandestine feel to it, like you're literally the underground resistance. So maybe it's an appropriate hobby and metaphor for the Dawn Of The Age Of Trump.

Maybe this feels like a cop-out. But like my turtle I'm moving at my own pace. Sometimes you stick your neck out, sometimes you hide in your shell.  If you're reading this two years from now the politics and circumstances may be a bit different but you still should make your post-election plan.

The damage this election did won't be undone in my lifetime, and I'll be spending the immediate future on defense and the rest of my years playing the long game. For the long game, you need your strength. The What Went Wrong Manifesto is still in my head, but right now the Packers are about to kick off.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Have Faith

These are dark days. Yesterday people were literally Sieg Heiling Mein Trumpf.

But flipping the channels a saw a little hope - in my new favorite ad. Most times the shorter version is run; this is the full cut.

Searching for the clip I learned that the official name for the Amazon spot is "Old Friends," a priest and an imam, in a ecumenical friendship that's not uncommon for the clergy. They visit, the visit ends, and they both strain a little to stand up. As they part they both get the same idea and get each other kneepads, bright green neon kneepads, as a gift.  Amazon delivers - this is, after all, an ad - they chuckle at their mutual insight, and they each go to their house of worship and pray, wearing their new kneepads.

Coming just days after a candidate who pledged to end Muslim immigration was elected president, this is a powerful statement delivered in a gentle tone.

But that's only secondary. Because the purpose of any advertising is primarily to sell your product. Amazon clearly believes, and has probably focus grouped and tested, that a positive portrayal of an Islamic faith leader will lead to you ordering more Stuff. Diversity is good for business.

And so is faith. This ad is a rare appeal across the current polarized cultural lines. The diversity angle for the left is easy, sure. But just as interesting is the positive portrayal of religious faith, which the right often complains is too rare in popular culture.

The central motivation driving the ad is prayer - the faith component and the physical component. And the distinct prayer image is important.  I don't know my faith garb well so I wasn't 100% sure the imam was an imam. I wondered if he was some sort of Eastern rite Christian, still ecumenical but not AS ecumenical, until he prayed in the distinctive Islamic forehead to ground prayer style.

The purchases (this is an ad) are made because each clergyman recognizes that the other's aging knees make the physical part of prayer harder. The kneepads mean that the priest and the imam can pay less attention to their aging bodies and focus more on the Father Son and Holy Spirit or Allah, whatever you call God.

An ad may be a small thing to base hope on right now, but I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Long Delayed Post-Canvass Number Cruncher

It feels like an exercise in Don't Blame Us denial of the reality of Trump's America and Branstad's Trifecta to even take a close look at the elections results from Johnson County. That and the need to physically recuperate are why I've been taking this at my own pace.

There's value, though, in looking at our local trends, and since no one else will and since my remaining readers demand it, let's dig in. If you're gonna read this, you may want this monster spreadsheet and the presidential numbers back to Warren G. Harding.

Iowa was a national poster child for the dramatic swing away from the Democrats. But the Johnson County election returns looked like... normal Johnson County election returns.

Hillary Clinton slipped just 1.44% and 466 votes from Barack Obama's 2012 numbers. Donald Trump, meanwhile, fell 3.8% and 2654 votes off Mitt Romney's pace. This left Hillary with a bigger raw vote margin over The Donald than Barack had over The Mitt.

I said all along that Trump would have trouble topping 25% here, and his 27.35 was just barely above George HW's worst-ever for a major party nominee 27.12% in 1992.

That, of course, was a true three-way race with Ross Perot taking one in six votes here. This year the third parties got 7.4% but it scattered among the eight other options on the ballot... and some who were not.

Gary Johnson soaked up 3.6% of the total vote. Close to a third of that is the regular Libertarian vote (1.1% in 2012). My gut check is that more of the remainder came out of Trump than Clinton, if only because the Republican numbers dropped more and because of my unsubstantiated rule of thumb that Libertarians pull two GOP votes to one Democratic vote.

Jill Stein bumped up from 0.4 to 1.1, but that's way below the Green's best with Ralph Nader's 6% from 2000.  Also compare Clinton's 65% to Al Gore's 61.

The Legal Marijuana Now Dude got about one vote a precinct. And if Gloria LaRiva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation stays on track, she should be POTUS by the 5016 election. Four votes in 2008, 10 in 2012, 35 this year. (Hey, I interviewed her, I get to make fun of the numbers.)

But the standout stats in the Also Ran numbers are the write ins. As recently as 2004, only 60 voters used the presidential write in line. That jumped to the 300 range in 2008 and 2012, largely thanks to Ron Paul and to a lesser extent the 2008 Hillary PUMAs. This year, the write ins tripled to 964, topping the 1 percent mark. Also notable: 536 people simply left president blank.

I don't want to take the time and I don't want to encourage it so I'm not diving into how many of those were Bernie or Bust and How many of those were Never Trump (Evan McMullin was just under 1%).

Remember that 14 percent stat from 2014? Make that a rule. Once again we are the most Democratic county in the statewide races by a very consistent margin: 14.7% better than Story for Hillary, and  13.7 better than Story for Patty Judge.

And, as for Roxanne Conlin in 2010 and Jack Hatch in 2014, the only win.

Dave Loebsack ran "only" 9.5 percent better here than in his next best county, thanks to a strong Jefferson County result. And Loebsack led the local ticket, with some 400 votes more than Clinton. Roughly 8000 voters cast a Clinton-Grassley-Loebsack ballot. The "Fluke" congressman has now been in DC longer than Iowa Democratic legends Dave Nagle, Berkeley Bedell, Dick Clark, or Harold Hughes.

At the precinct level, we see the same rural-urban split in Johnson County that we see in the nation. Iowa City proper was a 72-20 Hillary blowout. It should not surprise you but Clinton's lowest percentages were in the pure student precincts, with just a 59-33% at Iowa City 3 (west side dorms) and mid-60s in other student precincts. (Iowa City: where mid-60s is a weak D precinct.)

That's not write ins and not third party votes (Gary Johnson was at a consistent 2 to 5 % across the county). The simple fact that people always forget about college towns is that it is NOT the undergrad student vote that makes them liberal. A lot of those undergrads are from small Iowa towns or outer Chicago suburbs and still to some extent follow parental leads. No, what makes college towns liberal is grad students and faculty and staff.

Which is why Clinton's best numbers were in that next layer out from downtown, the near east side, topping out at 82-11 in precinct 18 (Longfellow) and 80-13 at precinct 17 (the former City High precinct). In Johnson County, even the `burbs are better than anywhere else in the state for Dems: 68-25% in Coralville and 59-32% in North Liberty.Please don't tell Bob and Sue Dvorsky or Amy Nielsen I called Coralville and North Liberty `burbs.

Speaking of Nielsen, even holding a good legislative seat in a year this awful is an achievement. Any's 58-42 win over Royce Phillips closely mirror's Sally Stutsman's 60-40 win when this seat was open and new in the much better climate of 2012. Phillips generally did better the more rural the precinct, but also carried the Jeffersons (Airplane and Starship, better known as West and East or Shueyville and Swisher).

Donald Trump also won the Jeffersons and seven other precincts outside the urban part of the county, mainly from among the pure farm precincts but also including Oxford.

There really wasn't much more to see locally. We were bystanders in the battle for State Senate control. Bragging rights in the uncontested races go to Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek over Auditor Travis Weipert and to Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass (in her third win of the year) over Rod Sullivan and Kurt Friese. Sullivan, though, gets to keep bragging rights as the first voter in the election.

The county still casts 31.5% of its vote on straight tickets and Democrats had more than a 10,000 vote advantage on that alone - one of the reasons Republicans have such a hard time in general elections for local office, and one of the reasons the New GOP Trifecta may eliminate the option.

The Iowa City Referendum Referendum won the early vote handily and the election day vote barely, for a 58-42 win largely along traditional Iowa City progressive vs. townie lines.

That early vs. Election Day split was as usual consistent across races. When the absentee numbers went up at 9:00 on Election Night, way back in another lifetime when there was hope, Hillary had a 76-19% lead, which slipped through the evening because of the smaller 53-37% Election Day total.

Johnson County set its fifth consecutive presidential turnout record this cycle. The last time it dropped was from 1992 to 1996, which I blame on me being on the `96 ballot. The final (canvass was today) count stands at 77,476, up from 76,199 in 2012.

That wasn't as big a jump as my projection of 83,000 voters. And yet we were still rushing ballots out to polling places on Election Day. For the first time since early voting got serious in Iowa in 1992, the percentage of votes cast before Election Day edged down, from 58% in 2012 to 53%. The raw number of early votes slipped a little, too, while Election Day voting was up by about 4,000.

Some of that may be late decisions. Others, I heard second hand, were saying "I want to see the ballot go in the machine," as the shadow of a heavy ballot challenging effort in 2004 still looms long.

Within the early vote, there was a shift toward voting at the auditor's office, and away from satellite sites and mailed ballots. Some of this was strategy, as Democrats made their vote by mail efforts later after learning the hard way in past cycles that requests gathered at the door in June are garbage. (Wonder how those requests forms from Caucus Night performed. I don't know, I took the requests out of the Johnson County caucus packets.)

The Johnson County satellite schedule was less extensive this cycle. Though we got the IMU back for the first presidential election post-2008 flood, we lost two of the best performing dorms, Burge and Hillcrest Halls, to increased handicapped accessibility standards. And I'm still mad at Hy-Vee for turning us down. Lucky's was more hospitable, and had an AC/DC pinball machine in the voting area, but only drew 240 voters compared to the 400+ we used to get at 1st Avenue Hy-Vee.

Some of the shift was the voter's choice to come to the office rather than try parking downtown at the public library. We had a smooth operation and were regularly processing over 500 voters a day, peaking at 1800 the day before the election. More people voted at the office in 2016 than in 2008 and 2012 combined.

It may be a good thing that people got used to coming to the office. I expect satellite voting to be banned soon after the legislature convenes, and for the early voting window to get shorter. (Office voting and mail will survive, because Republicans like and use those methods.)  With no satellites and, say, two weeks of voting instead of six, 1800 voters in a day will feel like a picnic.

Still, better than no options at all. We're still working on the election day registrations, but through 6 PM at least 2653 voters had used that option. I'm at the point where I just want the session to get here and the hammer to fall so I'll know what the rules will be and can start adapting to the New Order.

Turf We Can't Control: The Impact of the Election on the People's Republic

"The central problem that we grappled with last fall is the gap that separates the Head Culture from activist politics. Somewhere in the nightmare of failure that gripped America between 1965 and 1970, the old Berkeley-born notion of beating The System by fighting it gave way to a sort of numb conviction that it made more sense in the long run to Flee, or even to simply hide, than to fight the bastards on anything even vaguely resembling their own terms....

Most of us are living here because we like the idea of being able to walk out our front doors and smile at what we see. The world is full of places where a man can run wild on drugs and loud music and firepower -- but not for long. I lived a block above Haight Street for two years but by the end of '66 the whole neighborhood had become a cop-magnet and a bad sideshow. Between the narcs and the psychedelic hustlers, there was not much room to live...

What happened in the Haight echoed earlier scenes in North Beach and the Village. . . and it proved, once again, the basic futility of seizing turf you can't control."

Hunter Thompson, The Battle Of Aspen: Freak Power In The Rockies, 1970

Strip away the 60s-specific references and that's where the People's Republic of Johnson County finds itself now.

While we remain a Democratic bulwark, we have failed to persuade our neighbors - literally, as we made great efforts to assist Muscatine-based Senator Chris Brase, one of the many swept out Tuesday. I could post that map again, like I did for Roxanne Conlin and Jack Hatch, showing us as the only county for Patty Judge, but that would feel like Don't Blame Me Told Ya So bragging. (And we have enough of that from some folks, and you know who you are, at the moment. Too soon.)

The last couple years have seen great progressive gains in Johnson County. But our purely local gains, most notably our minimum wage but also our Community IDs and our jail alternatives and our ease of voting and our no gun zones and maybe most critically our already strained mental health system, are now at the mercy (ironic word, that) of the Lock Them Up, Send Them Back, Papers Please state and national government.
Perhaps it's a littler better on a personal level - not safe, but maybe in less danger - to be brown or out or different in a community with our values. But let's not kid ourselves. We're not an inherently Better or More Progressive place than anywhere else.

We're a self-interested place.

What makes academic communities like Iowa City and Madison and Berkeley and Ann Arbor liberal enclaves is NOT the mass of undergrad students. Most of them come from those small towns or outer suburbs that voted for Trump, and they often follow the lead of their parents. They're also more likely to be going through their Atlas Shrugged phase and go on a third party tangent.  Which is why Hillary Clinton's numbers are slightly lower (in the 60%s rather than 70s and 80s)  in the core Iowa City student precincts than they were in the rest of urban Johnson County, by 8 or 10 points

No, what makes academic communities, especially public university towns, is the faculty and staff. We've seen the correlation of higher education levels and lower trump percentages. But Another facet to that is that Republican tax and spending cut rhetoric doesn't work when the highest paid people in your community are paid with tax dollars. Your spending cut comes out of my lab.

And in a revolt that had anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism as some of its roots, the public university that fuels our local economy is at the mercy of a Board of Regents full of political minions (a lesson we should have all learned with the appointment of Bruce Harreld) and a governor and legislature that do not share our values, that do not see us as a resource to the whole state but rather as a tax drain on the 96 counties in Iowa which don't have a Regents university.

Just because YOU don't know anyone who voter for Trump (or, more likely, who admitted to it) doesn't mean they weren't a majority in Iowa. We are living in turf we can't control, and it's payback time.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What The Iowa GOP Trifecta Means For Voting

I'm still transitioning from the professional to the political on this night after the election, so I'm not yet capable to dig into the deep meaning of the election. So I'll stay in the professional zone and go over what the Republican takeover of the Iowa Senate, and thus the whole state government, will do to election law and process in Iowa.

Photo ID is of course a given.  It's dogma to the party base, it's explained with simplistic arguments ("I have to show an ID to do X, Y and Z...") and opposed only with complex meta-arguments about disproportionally. And mostly because that very disproportionally makes it so effective in its true intent: keeping Undesirables from voting. In most states this would mean ethnic minorities, but in Iowa it also means young mobile people in particular students.  The only question is how strict the law will be.

Next on the chopping block is satellite voting. Folks in campus counties and bigger cities, like the only six counties that Hillary carried last night, like the convenience of voting at their campus or a library or a hospital. People are more likely to vote where they spend their lives, so campus sites are crucial to the student vote.  The small counties with scattered small towns don't have the critical mass of population or the high-traffic locations to justify the sites, and they simply don't work. (Wal-Mart refuses at the corporate level to host early voting sites. I've tried.)
Of all the voting options available to Iowans, satellite voting produces the strongest Democratic percentages. Margins of 8 to 10 Democrats to one Republican are pretty common at the Iowa City Public Library. And since urban Democrats like satellite voting and rural Republicans don't use it, satellite voting is dead.

Satellite voting is "oh, I can vote here today?" while voting at the auditor's office is more like,  "I'm going to be out of town Tuesday so I need to vote." Which is why voting at your auditor's office will likely survive.

Older people and Lifelong Residents (Iowa City voters know that code term) are much more likely to know where the courthouse is, what the hours are, and are more likely to plan ahead. Even in Johnson County, in elections other than general elections, the office vote leans older and more conservative that the average of the electorate. I've called many local elections wrong because I spend all day waiting on old Republicans crossing over for a primary and asking "how soon can I change back."

Office voting is likely to change, though, probably with far fewer days than the long-standing 40 day voting window for primary and general elections.

Voting by mail will also survive, because it's the method Republicans are most likely to use. Mass mailings of absentee requests  (which Democrats do too) net a lot of GOP seniors.

The restrictions here are instead likely to focus on how requests can be made and how ballots are returned, under the cynical rationale of "ballot security."  “I believe no one should be touching your absentee ballot except you, an authorized election official or a postal worker,” Secretary of State Paul Pate has said. So door knocking for absentee requests could be curtailed, and ballot chasing could be restricted or eliminated - and it's Democrats who do those things.

On-line voter registration may also survive, in part because that welcome innovation was Pate's baby and in part because it requires that Iowa driver's license which newcomers and out of state students don't have.

Election day registration was one of the first things the Democratic trifecta did in 2007. The question is whether it's popular enough with the public to survive. My gut feeling is not, or that it will be changed Wisconsin-style to something so narrow as to be almost unusable (like the cannabis oil law). More likely the pre-registration deadline will be pushed back to 20 or 30 days.

Clean redistricting is probably too deeply embedded in the Iowa political culture to come under attack. It's also not a "necessary" change because the GOP is doing just fine with the law as is. And meddling with it would probably prove unpopular with independents.

I wouldn't be surprised to see an earlier poll closing time discussed. Iowa closes at a relatively late 9 PM for primary and general elections. Republicans and sadly some Democrats have supported rolling that back to 8, which is the closing time for local elections. But Democratic legislators have always stopped it. My own look at the numbers shows that the 8 to 9 hour gets about as many voters as any other part of the day.

Finally, one change is happening without legislative action. Gary Johnson topped the 2 percent bar in Iowa, which gives the Libertarian Party their long sought goal of full party status. The main difference from the "political organization" status they currently share with the Greens is that there will now be a Libertarian primary in 2018. The signature levels for a just barely big enough to qualify party to get its candidates on the ballot in Iowa are minuscule, and primary turnout is likely to be just as minuscule. My county had 44 voters in the last third party primary, for the Greens in 2002. The practical effect is a lot more printing costs and testing time for auditors, for ballots few people will use.

We Did Our Part

Record turnout.

A bigger margin for Hillary over Trump than Obama won over Romney.

Patty Judge carries the county.

Dave Loebsack wins again.

Three of the surviving 18 Democratic state senators.

Amy Nielsen holding an open House seat.

An all-Democratic courthouse.

A percieved "progressive" win on the petition issue

In the brutal post mortem that will follow, don't you DARE let anyone say Johnson County didn't do its part.

That's all I got right now.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Last Thoughts Pre-Election

Election eve - and with the absentee ballot board coming in early tomorrow, it's my election eve - is a strange time for me. I live in the world of politics and elections all the time. It's normally a small and insular world.

But once every four years - NOT in mid-terms, which we need to work on! - once every four years it's everyone's world. And I get to see the beautiful diversity of my many layered community coming through my office. Wave after wave, layer after layer, communities within my community that I barely oven notice existing at other times.

It's enlightening and uplifting and it's helped make up for the fearful climate of this year.

This is my fifth presidential cycle at my job. (The cycle before that I was a candidate and the one before that I was a staffer.) I've averaged 70 hour weeks the last two, and I'm two weeks past my last day off.

I made a brief stop at the headquarters after work. The office was filled, with people I don't know and who don't know who I am. It's ironic - as deeply embedded in the political community as I am, yet at the very moment the process peaks, I'm an outsider. Or, rather, I'm so deep inside that I can't see anything except this handful of bad absentee ballots that I'm desperately trying to get voters to fix.

Sometime in the week since I last drove the car, my sons figured out how to work the satellite radio, and in my brief drive I found the 80s college radio station. It was playing "Rise" by Public Image Limited, and Johnny Rotten Lyden was howling over and over:

Anger is an energy... anger is an energy... anger is an energy... anger is an energy...

When I was 22 and playing that then-new song on college radio, my anger was aimed straight at Ronald Reagan who I was convinced would draft and kill me, and that anger WAS an energy.

But at age 52, and in the context of this election, it scared the crap out of me.

I parked in the driveway and tried to figure out what it meant. If you're looking for hope, don't turn to Johnny Rotten. Was close to tears until my wife startled me, and teased me for playing it so loud loud enough to hear in the house. Loud enough that even the teenage kids were complaining and how's that for role reversal.

Our state has been the definitive counter-trend state of this election, and that poll last night was troubling.

But I'll tell you something else. There's something I've seen more this election from voters - by that I mean not generic voters but actual people coming into my office to vote right now - something I've seen more this year than any other election.


Passports that are obviously very new.

As if to prove beyond any doubt and any accusation that they whatever the color of their skin, they are real Americans.

At one point I helped someone who is well known in the community register for the first time. A name you would know. I was unaware they had not been a citizen until just days before. And I get the feeling that many others hustled along on the naturalization process to make sure not to miss this election.

And it has always been new Americans who made America great. Again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Time, Energy, and Voter Fraud

I'm so deep in the bubble that I have no idea what's really happening in this election.

Oh, I have a front row seat, sort of. But my change in job title this year means that I'm doing a lot less of some stuff that I used to do - taking routine calls and waiting on routine voters - that gave me a constant opportunity to take the public pulse and temperature.

Now I'm only dealing with the extra complicated problems, and that's not a reliable enough sample set to make any judgments. It's also a bit draining, and after getting home and catching up on the day's events I have no energy left for writing (I'm really forcing this right now and I'm sure it shows.)

My only bit of wisdom: If you want a sense of how Johnson County will turn out, watch the turnout at next week's Iowa Memorial Union satellite sites (all week). That's when we'll find out what's happening with our biggest variable, young voters. The Iowa outcome is still in doubt and as I've said before, history will judge this election by the Hillary over Trump margin, and the third party, write in, and non votes don't contribute to that margin.

I'm definitely too busy to be doing any voter fraud.

Elections are once again an election issue. I'm also too busy to write much about it but I will share some good background. Let's start with my boss.

"If you look at all the facts, it has been almost proven that any voter fraud has been proven non-existent in Iowa," Weipert said Tuesday morning. "I don't understand why the candidates and campaigns are going after us...Let us run the elections, that's why we are elected."

Even without all the checks and balances, it would be really really hard to steal an election. The best piece I've seen on that comes from GOP election law attorney Chris Ashby. Read the whole thing but I'll break down the summary paragraph.

To rig an election, you would need (1) technological capabilities that exist only in Mission Impossible movies, plus (2) the cooperation of the Republicans and Democrats who are serving as the polling place’s election officials, plus (3) the blind eyes of the partisan pollwatchers who are standing over their shoulders, plus (4) the cooperation of another set of Republicans and Democrats — the officials at the post-elections canvass, plus (5) the blind eyes of the canvass watchers, too. Then you’d still have to jedi-mind trick lawyers, political operatives and state election administrators, all of whom scrub precinct-level returns for aberrant election results, and scrutinize any polling place result that is not in line with what they would have expected, based on current political dynamics and historical election results.

Point 2: In Iowa poll workers have to be very closely balanced by party - an ongoing challenge in a 2 to 1 Democratic county, but we manage (with a lot of help from the Republicans). 

#5 is most interesting to me. You'd have to know exactly where to steal, exactly how much to steal, how much to steal and exactly how much you could get away with stealing, on a statewide or nation wide scale.

If degenerate gambler Hunter Thompson were still alive he could paint the analogy: a massive point shaving scheme.

Only you have to pull it off not just in one game but across an entire Saturday college football schedule, and you'd have to beat the odds in over half the games. You'd have to know every player on every team to spot the ones with ethical weaknesses or miscellaneous vulnerability to threats. They'd have to by random chance be placed on exactly the right teams and in exactly the right positions. Leaving the analogy and going back to the point for a moment, Philip Bump in the Washington Post:

You can't predict which state will be key. If you're going to rig the vote, you need to do it in a number of places at once -- which increases the risk, complexity and number of people involved. Adding a thousand votes in Florida would have made the difference, but that's only because George W. Bush won enough votes in other states to get him close to 270. You need to be able to predict the results in every swing state, or you need to rig votes across a broad geography. That's far harder than it seems at first blush.

Back to the analogy, the mistakes would have to be small enough to escape attention. You could get away with ONE missed field goal, but not four, especially if the kicker has been flawless all season.

And you'd go in knowing that there would be a near certainty of the player being caught. So you'd have to offer considerations big enough to get them to keep their mouths shut through long jail terms and permanent unemployability.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Special Raspberry Beret Package Up For Bid At JCDems BBQ

UPDATE: Current leading bid Brent Oleson, $125

The Johnson County Democrats are having their annual barbecue Sunday from 4 to 7 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. I came close to abandoning one of the BBQs recent traditions: the auction of an official Deeth Blog Raspberry Beret as part of the silent auction.

It's been a tough year for the beret. It's coasting on past writing glory rather than current output, as life is giving me less time to write this year. Worse, of course, is the untimely loss of The Artist himself (though that DID put the song back on the charts for a week).

But when I learned that our guest speaker was a Minnesotan, Senator Amy Klobuchar, I knew I would have to pay Prince an appropriate tribute. That will take more than just the beret. To REALLY honor Prince, you need the music.

So here it is: the 2016 Prince Rogers Nelson Memorial Raspberry Beret Package.

Included with the beret is a suitably framed original vinyl copy of Around The World In A Day, Prince's 1985 album that featured "Raspberry Beret" as the first single.

Also included: The Around The World In A Day sheet music book.

The barbecue runs from 4 to 7 Sunday.  Klobuchar is scheduled to speak early.  If she wants to honor her fellow Minnesotan with a big bid, you'll have time after to outbid her.

I'll take advance bids starting at $75 (this IS a fund raiser, and I put a few bucks into this, though of course the beret was the cheapest part) through any means of communication. As for the BBQ itself, tix are $25 each, $40 for family.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

What Republicans Should Be Saying Today

Republicans, feel free to copy, paste, and release.

From: Rep. Joe Conservative
To: Press
Re: Trump Remarks

As you know I endorsed Donald Trump several months ago during our national convention. I had many concerns about both his character and his rhetoric, but I remained silent as I thought that defeating the Democrat Party's nominee was more important. 

With the revelation of Trump's remarks from 2005, I can no longer stay silent. I am deeply sorry that I lacked the courage to speak out during our primaries or upon his nomination.

I urge Mr. Trump to suspend his campaign immediately, so we can begin to repair the damage to our party. 

But it is realistically too late to remove his name from the ballot. At this point, he can only be stopped by defeat, and merely withdrawing my endorsement and my personal vote is not enough.

A third party or write in vote is also not enough. History will judge our party and more importantly our nation by Trump's margin of defeat.

Therefore, I have made a difficult and painful decision. To assure Donald Trump's defeat I will vote for Hillary Clinton. I urge my supporters to do the same.

I disagree with Secretary Clinton on nearly every major issue. Four years of her presidency will be a severe setback for conservatives.

The Republican Party has recovered from mere defeat before and will again, and a Republican Congress will limit the damage. 

But one day of a Trump presidency will disgrace our party beyond redemption. 

In the next four weeks I intend to work as hard as possible to elect every Republican down the ticket, from Senator Mossback and myself to the state house and courthouse. 

For the next four years I will oppose President Clinton when possible, work with her when necessary, and help build an inclusive Republican Party that lives up to our values and ideals.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Vote Often and Often for Hillary

Zach Wahls demonstrates the best way to take a ballot selfie: the OUTSIDE of the envelope, I was really not expecting it, but people have really really strong feelings both ways on the issue of ballot selfies.

Most people in most states only get two shots at voting for a presidential candidate: the primary and general elections. But This is Zach's SIXTH Hillary vote of the year, and that's not too far out of line. I cast my fifth vote for Hillary on Thursday, and no, I don't get an employee discount at work. I know dozens of people who have cast five presidential votes this year just in my county.

The multiple votes are a by-product of Iowa's caucus system, which chooses delegates based on presidential preference at multiple levels of conventions. Any reasonably determined Iowan can attend all four levels: precinct caucus, county convention, congressional district convention, and state convention. I say "reasonably determined" because often, the election to the next level is determined by who wants it the most and how tired everyone else is.

Wahls squeezed in a sixth vote as a Clinton national delegate. That's a lot harder, because those prized national convention slots are few and the competition is intense. Now we're down to a few dozen, rather than hundreds, of people - and only Democrats, because Iowa Republicans only vote for president at the caucus, and don't break into preference groups at at conventions.

But even with his national delegate win, Wahls still did not maximize his votes.

A VERY determined person could cast a SEVENTH vote - in the electoral college. In Iowa, the nominations for those slots are made at the district and state conventions. As I keep reminding people, you're just a CANDIDATE for elector unless your ticket carries the state. The electoral college nominations are considered less of a prize than a trip to the national convention, but the slots are fewer, just six in the whole state compared to a few dozen national delegates. (I ran at my district convention and lost.)

Theoretically, there is a way to cast EIGHT votes for the same person. Not within the calendar year, but in less than 365 days. This would ONLY be possible for a newly elected member of the House of Representatives.

True election geeks know that, if the electoral college deadlocks, the House chooses the president. It's only happened twice: 1800-01 and 1824-25.  What's more obscure is that the Constitution prohibits federal office holders, including members of Congress, from serving as electors.

So you'd have to thread the needle just right: Be a Democrat. Get elected, for the first time, to one of just four House seats in the state, by either beating an incumbent or winning a rare open seat. The Democratic nominee wins the state BUT the electoral college is deadlocked which has not happened in 192 years. Cast vote number seven as one of the state's six electors in December. Get sworn into Congress in January, and then vote on the new president in the House for your eighth vote, less than a year after caucus night.

Your Powerball odds may be better, especially since if you were spending all those Saturdays at conventions instead of at parades and on call time, your chances of winning that congressional election are slim. But I'm telling you there's a chance.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Spinning The Special: Merry Christmas, Scott County!

I have to admit: Deep as I am into election season, my first thoughts on learning that the special election to replace the late state senator Joe Seng would be December 27 were for my colleagues in the Scott County Auditor's Office. Thanks for ruining Christmas, Terry Branstad.

Greatest. Christmas Song. EVER.

Professional sympathy aside, it would be hard to pick a worse Tuesday than the one between Christmas and New Year's for voter attention and turnout.

That, of course, is the idea. Seng's district is solidly Democratic, but the State Senate is THE battle of the year in Iowa, even above and beyond the electoral votes. Technically, no one has a majority of the 50 member body now, with 25 Democrats, 23 Republicans, one independent who defected from the GOP, and a dead Democrat.

Strange things happen in low turnout special elections, and Branstad may figure a bad election date is his best bet. (Of course, if either party gets to 26 seats on November 8, it won't matter much.)

I actually thought Branstad would play it the other way and delay the election, to leave the seat open in hopes of having a brief working majority. You can do a lot of damage in just a few days, just ask Scott Walker.

Gaming the schedule is just one item on Branstad's naughty list. He also spun the reasoning and, in a bank shot, laid the blame on a Democrat, Scott County Auditor Roxana Moritz.
The Governor’s office said that Branstad considers November 8, 2016 to be the best date for the special election as it would coincide with the general election. They said it would ensure high voter turnout and would save the expense of having another election. The Iowa Code allows a county auditor to prevent a special election from taking place on the same day of the election if the county auditor believes their are undue difficulties administering both elections.

The Scott County Auditor, Roxanna Moritz, informed the Governor’s office that she believed a special election on November 8th would cause undue difficulties. Because of her objection and the six week blackout period surrounding a general election, the special election for Senate District 45 can occur no sooner than December and Branstad then chose Tuesday, December 27, 2016 as the date.
Note the careful wording. "Six week blackout period surrounding a general election." "The special election can occur no sooner than December." So you skip the next six Tuesdays after November 8, and the next Tuesday is December 27, right?

Nope. "Surrounding" means six specific weeks EITHER SIDE of November 8. October 18 and 25 and November 1, 15, 22 and 29. True, "the special election can occur no sooner than December..." December 6, which is already an available date for school districts to hold elections. Or December 13 or 20. Which leaves gaming the system as the only rationale for December 27.

The Scott County Auditor, Roxanna Moritz, informed the Governor’s office that she believed a special election on November 8th would cause undue difficulties.  

Seng died almost two whole months before the election! What's so hard?

Let me tell you what the work cycle is like through this stretch of time.

The last filing deadline for the November 8 election was August 31. The withdrawal  and objection deadline was September 6, the day after Labor Day. The sprint starts immediately after that.

By September 16, the date of Seng's death, the process of programming, printing, and testing ballots was already too far along logistically for a major change like adding a whole new contest, at least in our county and certainly in others. We start voting a week from today. The overseas ballots have to be in the mail by this Saturday - just 8 days after Seng's death. That's not even enough time to schedule the party nominating conventions.

(That may also be a reason Branstad wanted to push for November 8. Both of the two Democratic House members in Seng's district, Jim Lykam and Cindy Winckler, want to move across the rotunda. You can't be on the ballot for both jobs at the same time...)

So... couldn't you just have a separate ballot for that one race? Logistical nightmare. We tried to run two elections side by side once, back in 1992 when we had a school bond a month after the presidential. People were putting wrong ballots in wrong envelopes, screwing up BOTH votes.

I've thought all day and maybe I shouldn't touch this with a 39 and a half foot pole, but I'm going to say it anyway.

There is one way the election could have been held on November 8. That decision wasn't in Terry Branstad or Roxana Moritz's hands.

That decision was Joe Seng's.

I didn't know Joe Seng personally, though I trust my friends who say he was a great guy. I won't pretend: long time readers know I was not a political fan. I thought he had poor positions on choice and on agribusiness, and I resented his 2012 primary challenge from the right to my friend Dave Loebsack. Had I known him personally I might have been more forgiving, then and now.

Yes, Joe Seng battled bravely with cancer, fighting to represent Davenport till his dying day.  

But there's a flip side to that.

If I ever write my book, it's going to be about one of the great unsolved, and probably unsolvable, problems of politics: what to do with an official who doesn't know when it's time to step down, a leader in denial or even in cognitive decline. It's not a partisan problem or even a problem limited to government. I dealt with that very directly for a big chunk of my career. A lot of people I care about personally, and more importantly the public, suffered because someone refused to let go.

Most of the media didn't pick up on it, perhaps in deference. (Even I had the decency to wait a few days here.) But KWQC ran multiple stories about Seng's struggles with constituent service and communication, and in late July he was forced to surrender his veterinary license under a "settlement" that was clearly not fully on his own terms.

I can't determine at what point Seng's health reached the hospice level, whether it was before or after the ballot deadlines. But he had been very, very ill for a very, very long time, since well before his 2014 unopposed re-election.

Once it was clear the end was near, it would have been a last good act of public service for Joe Seng to have resigned with dignity on a date that would have allowed his successor to have been chosen on the presidential ballot. His reasons for not doing that are between him and God now, and I may be judging too much. But the consequences of his not doing so are now playing out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Winning, Not Petitions, The Real Barrier To Iowa City Initiatives

The last thing on the 2016 ballot in Iowa City is what I'm calling the Referendum Referendum: a meta measure to lower the number of signatures needed to pass other citizen initiatives under Iowa City's home rule charter.

The argument seems to be that the signature requirement itself is a major barrier to getting initiatives on the ballot and, ultimately, approved by the voters. I'm semi-agnostic on that, but a look at history shows that step one of getting on the ballot has been less of a problem than step two: getting voters to agree. Settle in for a deep dive; non-locals may wish to opt out.

Until recently, there WAS a problem with the signature process, but it was a problem separate from numbers. Virtually all civic petitions in Iowa require signers to be "eligible" electors, meaning old enough, citizens, non-felons, and living in the appropriate jurisdiction. Signatures are generally accepted at face value unless there are obvious flaws (a West Des Moines address on an Iowa City petition, for example), or if an opponent challenges them.

But the Iowa City initiative standard was "eligible" electors, which the city staff interpreted as actually registered to vote at your current address.  City staff spent countless hours reviewing petitions line by line against the voter rolls. If so much as an apartment or dorm room was off, the signature was stricken.
It openly targeted the most mobile voters: students. The procedure burdened petitioners by making them conduct voter registration drives alongside their petition drives. Not a bad thing in itself, but it slowed down each signature. And with early petition deadlines, long before the August 1 date when every lease in Iowa City turns over, they had to then go back and re-re-register everyone in the fall when it came time for the harder work of actually getting people to vote.

It was also obsolete. With Iowa's election day registration law of 2008, anyone who can prove their address at the polls and is an eligible elector is also a qualified elector.

That problem was resolved in the 2014-15 charter review, by switching the charter to the more reasonable "eligible" elector standard. It also made the deadlines a little more reasonable.

The trade-off for this was raising the NUMBER of signatures. The requirement before 2015 was 25% of the prior city election, which in practice ranged from about 1800 signatures to a prescribed max of 2500 - all with the harder "qualified" elector requirement.  In exchange for the easier "eligible" requirement, the number was raised to a minimum 3600 (or, if higher, 25% of the prior city election, but you'd have to be coming off a near-record turnout for that to kick in.)

My take was that it was a win on the principle of the thing, and that 3600 "eligible" names is about as heavy a lift as 2500 cross-checked "qualified" names. The backers of the Referendum Referendum disagree. Their proposed requirement would be 10% of the last city election, still with the easier "eligible" elector rules; the average range of that would be 700 to 1000 names. (I'm generalizing. Here's the turnout back to `89 if you want to do your own math.)

You could make a case for that... but it would be a stronger case if the landscappe were littered with failed petition drives. In my 26 years here, I know of only one effort that tried and failed to get the signatures: a badly organized medical marijuana effort in the mid-2000s. Everyone else that I know of has successfully qualified for the ballot: 13 times since 1977, so on average once every three or four years.

Two of those issues - the red light camera/drone issue of the early 2010s and the Nuclear Free Zone issue of the mid 80s - were approved by the city council without ever appearing on the ballot. Or, cynics said, in order to keep them off the ballot, as the city council old guard saw them as more symbolic than substantive. Easier just to put up the signs at the city limits. Otherwise those hippies might come out to vote for it and accidentally elect Karen Kubby while they're at it.

So 11 citizen initiated issues have appeared on the Iowa City ballot since the 1970s. The real barrier? Getting these measures approved by the voters.  Only two have ever passed, and one was overturned in a subsequent vote.

The first ever successful effort was 1997's infamous "Yes Means No" effort to stop the extension of First Avenue. Because the language was technically to "remove the First Avenue Extension along Hickory Hill Park from Fiscal Year 1998, and instead, include the First Avenue Extension in Fiscal Year 2002" (still with me?), you had to counter-intuitively vote Yes to stop the road and No to build the road. This has confused voters not just in that election but on every Yes or No ballot question ever since.

With some creative work (stop sign shaped YES signs included), the Yes side prevailed in an upset. But the measure only kicked the can down the road, and as soon as it was legally possible, the bulldoze and build old guard promptly put the road back on the plan. (The road was never the real issue. The real issue was opening up the area around Hickory Hill Park to development.)   

This prompted a second Yes Stop The Road petition, which landed on the 2000 presidential ballot. This time "No, Build The Road" prevailed.  I voted Yes both times but I drive on it anyway.

The only other citizen initiative to pass was the 2007 measure that established what is now called the Community Police Review Board. The issue had actually been petitioned six years earlier but had been stuck in court until being ordered onto the ballot right at the filing deadline. It passed easily, 72-28%.

The police review issue was overshadowed, of course, by the Big One: the first of three citizen initiated votes on the bar admission age.

I've written volumes on this18 year olds are adults, and should have full adult rights. Never budging on that one.  But that's not the point here. The point is: despite the different AGE results, 19 winning once and 21 twice, the citizen initiated Yes side lost all three votes.

People forget now, but that first vote in 2007 was an initiative to RAISE the bar admission age from 19 to 21. The votes weren't there on the council so Rick Dobyns, fresh off his 2005 city council loss, decided to petition for it. So it was Yes for 21, No for 19. It seemed like a slam dunk win... but in one of the biggest upsets in city history, and with the greatest campaign committee name ever, Student Health Initiative Taskforce, students actually VOTED in a non-presidential election and handed the issue a sound defeat, 58-42%.

Consider the sad political career of Rick Dobyns. Loses in 2005. Loses the bar election to the STUDENTS in 2007. Wins in 2011 against an opponent who refused to campaign. Loses in 2015.

Consider also the career of Matt Hayek, who campaigned in 2007 saying he wanted to let the voters decide the bar issue... then when the voters decided wrong (or was it that the wrong voters decided?) he wanted a do-over.

So early in 2010, a new council passed 21, and the bar owners went to work on their petition drive. They succeeded in their strategic goal; by my math they maximized the potential for the student vote in a governor cycle. But with a thumb on the scale from the University and the entire city establishment, with a culture war anti-student mindset in the townie community, and with zero campaign to non-students other than my own obviously ineffective 18 Is Adult rants, the petitioning side failed. It's written out of the history now, but it was a very narrow loss, only 52-48%.  

The third vote in 2013 was a half-assed effort by the bar owners to lower the age back to 19, and it lost two to one. Don't know why they even bothered. I never even got asked to SIGN the petition let alone pass any.

The other big citizen initiated effort of recent years was the public power vote of 2005 - which was under a separate section of state law and not covered by the city charter. Still, it was a thing that citizens petitioned for. That one got clobbered two to one, by a half-million dollar campaign (on a city ballot issue!) by Mid-American and by IBEW declaring it a labor solidarity issue. We knew that one was losing months out and it was the most miserable death march campaign I've ever been on.

Stepping back into the wayback machine for the others:
  • There were two rental property related issues back to back:  a 1977 "tenant-landlord ordinance" which failed narrowly and a 1983 vote on actual rent control which got clobbered.Would love a chance to vote on THAT one again...
  • A 1985 vote to change the city council district system failed; I could never find the actual wording and I've made my own proposal on that one.
  • And a 1989 vote that was technically to change a large zoning parcel but was really to stop Wal-Mart also failed. Just before my time, so I don't know if Vote Yes To Stop WalMart was confusing the way Vote Yes To Stop First Avenue was.
I've petitioned for stuff and it's hard work. But it's not prohibitively hard work, and without the added barrier of the "qualified elector" standard, it's easier work than actually getting people out to vote. Back in 2009 the Republicans got about 8000 signatures in less than two weeks to force a special election after Democrat Janelle Rettig was appointed to the Board of Supervisors.  But they got only half that many people to get out to vote for their candidate.

The very premise of the Referendum Referendum is a scenario I'm having trouble envisioning: an issue that is popular enough and a campaign that is organized enough to win, yet not organized enough to get the signatures. The track record says the signatures are the easy part.

I don't know how I'll vote yet, but I do wish the petitioners behind the Referendum Referendum had used the opportunity of a presidential election to work for a more substantive change or to, you know, elect some people. It would take some variation of a Weed Vote to get noticed over Hillary and Trump (not even 21 Bar Round 4 would do the trick).

Instead, the advocates will be making a big effort in a politically crowded and noisy environment to focus on a process issue that most people will fail to understand and in the end ignore. And in general, the default response to a ballot question you don't understand is No.