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.


dahlgren said...

Joe was a good guy, but seeing him struggle this last year in Senate was troubling. I could not imagine him serving an additional two years, and i couldn't help but think after he was forced to give up his vet practice, it would have been best to leave the Senate as well, allowing the parties to pick candidates for the Senate and House before the August deadline. After all, it looks like we will have two special elections, not one. To the extent that this in an effort to game the system by Branstad - yeah, I get that. I can't see it having much impact though. The impact of the move by Johnson is interesting, and I understand trying to gain every possible advantage if the split is 25 R, 23 D, 1 I and the open Seng seat. Purely speculative, but I almost think the D's would be likely to get support from Johnson in a 25-24 split. On the other hand, if the R's can win an unwinnable seat (hey - Mark Chelgren wins a tough seat), well they don't need David Johnson. The Packers have not looked good this year - you might be more excited by inside baseball come late December

dahlgren said...

A second point about the Scott County situation is that for obvious reasons, Winckler and Lykam may have wanted to wait to see if the D's take back the House (there are what, five good open seats and maybe 12 decent incumbent target seats? Both are good candidates to chair committees (Transporation and the Education budget sub). We spend a lot of time talking about whether the D's can hold the Senate but forget that the House is very winnable (the lack of money raised by House D's seems a sad consequence of that myopia). On November 9, in a 51-49 House, I'm sure Speaker-elect Mark Smith would hope the Senate find a new candidate and leave House Majority Leader Winckler alone. And, it may be that Lykam and Winckler will find a majority in the House more attractive than being the 24th Democrat in the Senate (and hoping for votes from David Johnson). Or perhaps, with a 25-23-1 split in the Senate, and a 51-49 D majority in the House, Lykam or Winckler might do the pre-emptive Dvorsky - be the first to resign in order to seek the Senate seat (putting a lot of pressure on the other to yield