Saturday, January 07, 2017

Deeth's Deep Dig Into Voter ID Bill

It's difficult to critique the proposed voter ID legislation, with the Orwellian name "Voter Integrity," launched by Secretary of State Paul Pate on Thursday. That's because, even though it was no doubt drafted months ago at the right wing ALEC think tank, the actual full text of the bill is still unavailable.

That left 99 auditors and staffs in the dark Friday as we - when I say "we," I assume regular readers know that I'm a 19 year employee of the Johnson County auditor's office - as we tried to piece together information from stories that had the main headlines, but didn't have the kinds of details we need to do our jobs. Look, I know our convenience is not anyone's priority. But it WOULD be nice to know what's going on so we can offer our professional critiques of what will and won't work.

I get that ID is going to happen. I knew that Election Night. It's been dogma for the Republican base for years, they want it, they won. (In Iowa, they not only won but they got the most votes.) And I'm not going to debate the question itself. The facts are out there that voter impersonation, the only fraud IDs would stop, is non-existent.

But that's not the point. Either you philosophically believe that people should have to show an ID to vote, or you don't. I don't. Either you care that it is harder for certain types of people to get photo IDs, and that those people tend to be disproportionately at the margins of society and disproportionately vote one way, or you don't, or you DO care and that's exactly why you're doing this.

So instead I'm just going to dive deep into the details and half details that we have as of mid-day Saturday.

First, let's get up to speed about current Iowa law regarding IDs, which will require a long tangent into voter registration.

Most Iowa voters do not have to show an ID to vote. You do, however, need to provide an ID number to register to vote. This verification is required under the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which supposedly fixed everything that went wrong in Florida. I still get laughs when I describe it like that.

"My lishense number is 007."

If you have an Iowa license, you use that number. At this point, most voters pull out their licenses. I usually say, "I don't need to SEE it, but you do need to put down the number and I don't have mine memorized either."

If you don't have an Iowa license, which many many many out of state University of Iowa students do not have, you provide the last four digits of your social security number. I then take your form and go to a website hosted by the Iowa Department of Transportation. I look you up using your SSN, birth date, and name. Usually, it tells me that yes, you are a living human being. I stomp your form with a big red VERIFIED stomper and enter your data on the state voter system.

If your SSN does NOT verify, then I have to make your status "pending" and send you a letter. This is where we see a few problems. Making a long story short, because this post is going to be long enough as it is: The system has no kind of wild card search capability. You just have to keep guessing and entering variations on the name until you luck into the exact perfect spelling. Some types of names are harder to verify, especially any kind of compound last name. That disproportionately affects some kinds of people, especially Hispanic people who use the combined paternal and paternal surnames. But even O's and Macs have trouble sometimes.

For people who won't verify there are other ID options, and we're starting to circle back now toward the ID bill.

On maybe half a dozen occasions last fall I had voters (all new arrivals to Iowa and all with those compound names) who had tried and failed to get verified a couple times, where I could do was tell them, "I'm sorry, but can you come in with an ID?" They came in with their out of state licenses. Showing the valid license, even from another state, is automatic verification. (What I don't know is how many of those people who got Pending letters just never tried after that.)

So that's how it works until the voter registration deadline (10 days before general elections, 11 days for all others). After that, we switch into Election Day Registration (EDR) mode. That requires both a photo ID and proof of address. If you have an Iowa license with your current address, that covers it all. If you have an old Iowa address or an out of state license, you need to provide other proof of address. And you can only do this right when you're voting. You can't come in the Thursday before an election, do an EDR, then go to the polls Tuesday. You either vote early right now or you take your IDs to the polls.

Student IDs are not accepted for EDRs, because they don't have an expiration date. They would not be accepted as voter IDs under the proposed legislation, either. The simple solution would seem to be, well, add a date then.

What WOULD be accepted as a voter ID under the proposed law would be an Iowa - only Iowa - license (I use the terms "Iowa license" and "Iowa DOT non-driver ID" interchangeably), a military ID, or a passport. (Passports tend to belong to people who are wealthier and older.)  "If you don’t have an ID," Pate says, "we will send you a new voter registration card to use at the polls.

Not valid.

And that is my big question of the moment. It's not clear whether "we" is the Secretary of State, or the auditor's office, and it's not clear whether "a new voter registration card to use at the polls" means the same, non-photo, voter cards that auditors mail everyone already, or some kind of new ID. I've publicly asked and gotten no reply. It's also not clear what the turnaround time and cutoff dates will be, and in elections the workload increase week by week is exponential, not linear.

Or does it mean a free Iowa DOT non-driver ID? That's great. But it's only "free" if you also pay for: my ride to the DOT that's on the other side of town, the babysitter, the 1/2 day of work I missed, and the legal work to fix my birth certificate that has a spelling discrepancy in my middle name.

It's also not clear what this would do to election day registration voters. It would seem that an EDR voter moving within Iowa would be OK with an Iowa license with an old address and with another proof of address. But what happens to the voter with the out of state license? You can REGISTER with that, but you can't VOTE with that... so you can't register because you can't vote... Go back to your dorm room and get your passport.

Your US passport. With your real name. 

You see where this is going. ID laws are a game of margins. You're not going to make it impossible for very many people to vote, though that will happen. You're just going to make it impractical.

Another way to make it impractical is a longer line. Political differences on voter ID aside, this is definitely going to slow down the line for everyone. Pate is implausibly claiming that scannable IDs will speed things up. Maybe that one step is faster, IF the scanners are working right. But you're adding the additional steps of everyone getting out the ID, people not finding it, people who don't have them and need to vote provisional ballots...

...and signature verification. Pate has always been more interested in signature verification than in photo ID. (Which tells me that Pate got on board and this proposal is THE election bill backed by Republican legislative leadership, and not the Pate Bully Pulpit bill.)

Most counties with electronic poll books use the Precinct Atlas program, which does not include images of signatures. This program has some networking capabilities but is designed to be a stand-alone program. It works off a downloaded copy of the voter file that’s updated as late as possible before election day.

The IVoters statewide voter registration software that we use in auditors offices (and at some satellite sites) to do the bulk of our work does include imaging. It’s an entirely on-line program, connected to a central server.

Under tight 24 hour security. 

So signature verification at the polls would require either 1) IVoters at every precinct, meaning Internet and I mean SECURE Internet at every precinct, so that poll workers could look at images of past signatures. Even in Johnson County, Internet can get iffy in rural areas, and there's likely a few polling places in the state that can barely get cellphone service. It would also mean upgrades to IVoters because it’s not designed for processing election day voters.

Or signature verification at the polls would require 2) A new version of Precinct Atlas that incorporates imaging, either through, again, a live Internet connection, or through some kind of gigantic download of image files – which even for small images like signatures takes up a lot of drive space.

There's also an inconsistency: Some voters have only ever registered through the DOT or through the new on-line registration program that started last year. Those signatures are on file with the DOT, but are NOT on IVoters.

(Aside: Bringing the smaller counties on board with electronic poll books is a good thing, though the money in the bill is for LOANS to counties, so they'll still have to find the money locally. A lot of things in this bill will increase local expenses, which has been the Branstad/GOP legislature mode for ages. Brag about state level tax cuts, pass the costs down to the locals.)

A few issues were left out of Thursday's press conference: satellite voting, numbers of days of in person early voting, straight tickets, and redistricting. That doesn't necessarily mean those things are safe, because we don't have the full text of the bill.

The item Pate mentioned that got the least attention was: "Creating a deadline for proxies to return collected voter registration forms and absentee ballots to the county auditor’s office." That created some confusion in our office, as the word "proxy" has a very narrow and specific meaning in Auditor Speak (overseas ballots requested by relatives).

This is directed at door knocking and especially at ballot chasing, which Democrats do a lot more than Republicans. Pate has long been an opponent of ballot chasing, saying in his 2010 campaign that no one but an election worker or a letter carrier should handle your ballot.

Without details I can't comment much. There's already a deadline for ballot requests; campaigns need to bring them in within 72 hours. (There's a hole in the law because three day weekends are longer than 72 hours. You can't drop off your Friday night requests on Monday if we're closed.) This occasionally gets missed, usually because a volunteer didn't get the forms to headquarters fast enough. It got passed in the 2003-04 session after the 2002 Democratic field campaign had the stupid strategy of sitting on requests for months, turning in their requests batched by precinct, so they could then ballot chase by precinct.

For a couple hours Thursday the phrase "shorter absentee voting period" was floating around, leading us to think we'd see fewer days of voting at auditor's office. Turns out, the press was using the term "absentee" voting to refer to voting by MAIL.

Under the proposed bill, the deadline to request a mailed ballot would be 10 days before a general election (11 days for all others). I'm not gonna lie. This will make my job easier. But that's not why I chose to make my career in elections. My job is helping people vote, not making my life easier.

The pace of vote by mail requests drops a bit during the last week. Campaigns stop doing mailings and stop getting requests at the door (except in 2014), and voters realize there just isn't time. The successful return rate is also lower. But there's always some people who have no other way to vote.

I looked at the numbers yesterday. Johnson County saw 663 domestic vote by mail requests between Monday, October 31 (eight days out) and Friday, November 4, the current legal deadline. (Until 2004, there was no deadline at all. You could request a mailed ballot the day before the election, and I saw people successfully vote that way.) Of those 663 requests, 484 ballots were successfully returned on time and counted. That's people who at best would have had a lot harder time voting and for many that's people not able to vote at all.

The proposed legislation would also set a first day to request a mailed ballot at 120 days out, which would be early July.  That used to be 70 days (late August) until 2004; now there's no first day at all. I have a folder at work with local election requests that were signed a year ago.

This would cut a little time off the Democratic field canvass, but I actually think that's good. As the Dems found by crunching the numbers from the 2014 disaster, the earliest requests, like the late late requests, have a poor return rate. In my county, everyone moves on August 1st. That's why I've argued long and hard against including absentee requests in caucus packets - and that's why I took them OUT of the packets this year.

Leaving the field staff aside and looking only at self-starting voters, I have trouble seeing how anyone would be "disenfranchised" by having to wait till July to turn in a form. That's because overseas and military voters are covered by the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and would be exempt from both the first day and last day requirements.

 "Requiring an ID number for voting by absentee ballot" just feels like a nitpick. The argument is that this will make it easier to search and match voters. But IVoters has enough search functions that the ID number isn't really necessary.  I can probably find you with your initials and birth date, or even your age. (The biggest barrier to finding a voter? Legibility.)

Requiring ID numbers on requests and ballots (presumably ballot ENVELOPES, another case where public discussion and Auditor Speak are different languages) does two things. One, it attempts to dodge the inevitable question "well, if we have to show ID at the polls, what about absentees?" The reality here is: if you required a photocopy of an ID, it would disenfranchise a lot of older rural Republicans who don't have a printer-copier at home.

Two, it makes it marginally less likely for the field staffer to get that request form at the door. "Oh, I can't find my license."

It's spelled "licence."

"I'll just mail this form in later," which maybe the voter does and maybe the voter doesn't. (A lot of unreturned absentee ballots are because the voter simply signed the request form to make the door knocker go away.)

Since I'm already at 2500 words long and 48 hours after Pate's press conference, I'll save the issue of combining city and school elections for another post, other than to note that it is technically and logistically a lot harder than it sounds, and that it is unlikely to save much if any money.

I know a lot of auditors of both parties. Almost every one is an election administrator first and a partisan later if at all. And auditors aren't fans of voter ID. Not because it will be more work, though it will be. But because they've been on the front lines of dealing with the public and they know that it doesn't solve anything and that it will make it harder for the voters.

Some version of this bill will pass. That was decided in the election. The question is whether the Republican legislators will listen to the people who know the most about this, or whether throwing red meat at a problem that doesn't exist, with the barely hidden agenda of partisan gain, is more important.

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