Senate File 339 sponsored by Rick Bertrand (R-SUX) would move the first day of in person early voting, at the auditor's office or satellite sites, from the current 40 days before the election to just 15 days out.
It would also cut off vote by mail requests 15 days before the election, which is stricter than the 10 days out proposed under Secretary of State Paul Pate's "Voter Integrity" (sic) bill, and far stricter than the current four day cutoff.
Restrictions on early voting days are often the next step in voter suppression after ID laws.
While it's not clear yet whether Bertrand's bill has any traction, it confirms what I have feared for weeks: that Pate's bill is just the tip of the iceberg and that additional election restrictions will be proposed. Also in the mix are Sandy Salmon's House File 150, which would end election day registration, and Brad Zaun's bill that proposes a stricter voter ID standard than Pate's plan.
Bertrand's bill also includes an unworkable deadline for overseas voters. The federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) requires overseas ballots to ship out 45 days before a federal election. Bertrand would push that back to 60 days - just three days after the final date for county candidates to withdraw. That would make programming, printing, and testing ballots impossible - and for little real gain, since the overwhelming majority of overseas voters choose to have their ballots emailed. (Almost all have to print and mail them back.)
So with the ballots ready earlier, why not let people vote them?
I've looked at numbers for my county. We've long been the heaviest early voting county in Iowa; in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2016 we had more early votes than election day votes. We also had the biggest Democratic margins all of those years, which Rick Bertrand may have noticed. Here's how the 2016 numbers break down.
Johnson County had 43,092 absentee requests, between mail, office voters, and satellite voters. 41,795 early votes counted. Numbers won't match up perfectly; this is about big picture. Some ballots never come back, some people made errors that kept them from getting counted, and some people turned them in unvoted and voted at the polls. Also, provisional ballots get added into the absentee totals.
We had 17,764 total voters at office, from 40 days out through the day before the election, on a total of 31 voting days. Overall average was 573 a day.
7316 of those were early-early, from 40 days out through 18 days out (a Friday, we were closed that weekend). That's 17 total days averaging 430 voters a day. These would not be allowed under Bertrand’s bill.
Some of that is people with their mind made up, and they're doing the late-early voters a favor by getting their business done and getting out of the way before the late deciders showed up. Some of that was people leaving town, who would be in transit those last couple weeks.
Another 10,446 voters came to the office from 15 days out through the day before the election, over 14 total voting days. (We were open two Saturdays as required by law, and the final Sunday by our choice). Some of those days included evening hours. That's an average of 746 per day, peaking at over 1800 the day before the election. We were using every square foot of building space, every body, every parking space, and every computer that was available, and a few that weren't.
Assuming everybody who preferred voting at the auditor's office still votes at the office, and we have to cram those 7316 earliest voters from the first 3 1/2 weeks into final two weeks, we would average 1269 a day. That’s busier than we were any single day except the final day’s 1800+. . (Our second busiest day was Friday before the election at 898.) More realistically, this would ramp up, from 1000 or so the first day to 2500 the last.
That's more time for voters to wait, and more workers to hire - because spreading the work over six weeks means we can keep the same people working more days and getting more efficient at the job
I still expect a move to ban satellite voting outright. The only proposal thus far is another bill which would require sites to be in cities of over 200 population. All Johnson County cities would qualify... but this would rule out rural sites. We've had a couple over the years.
SF339 would also ban satellite sites before 15 days out, cramming more workload into the final two weeks.
We've scaled back a little but Johnson County still has the most robust satellite schedule in the state. Three of our 2016 sites, with 935 voters, were before the 15 day period.
584 of that was at our traditional "Early Bird Day" on the very first day of voting at the Iowa City Public Library. Obviously, that kind of kickoff event would be out.
The language in Bertrand’s bill is a bit unclear about the first day for requests. He seems to think the old law that barred requests more than 70 days before the election is still in effect. It was repealed in 2004, and now the law is infinity. Pate's bill would make that 120 days and frankly that's the one thing in his bill I support. Under current law too many people move after they request ballots, and that causes a lot of problems. The only people who really need to request that early are overseas voters who are covered by federal law.
The early end is not the problem. The back end is the issue. Bertrand would cut off requests 15 days out.
Johnson County had 1783 domestic mailed ballot requests from 14 days out until 4 days out, the cutoff date under current law. 1477 of these were returned, and 1414 were counted. That includes 669 ballots requested less than 10 days out, which Pate's bill would ban. 485 of those were returned and 451 counted. Obviously there's a diminishing return, but that's still a large precinct's worth of voters.
Some of those late requests are procrastinators. But some are shut-ins or travelers or people who get interested late and have no other options.
10,034 Johnson County early voters, close to a quarter, would at the very least have to change their voting behavior:
- 7316 office voters more than 15 days out. Some of that moves to mail, which is less reliable than in person voting. People make mistakes and forget to sign stuff, things get lost in the mail. My rule of thumb is 10 office votes is 10 votes, but 10 vote by mail requests is 9 votes.
Some of those office voters move into the back of the line, either at the auditor's office or at the polling places. How many of those people can't wait in the longer lines?
- 1783 voters who requested mailed ballots less than 15 days out, 1414 of that counted. A lot of that unfortunately becomes non-votes.
- 935 satellite voters more than 15 days out. Most of that moves to another line; some of that vote (especially the dorm we visited this year) gets lost.
This hurts everybody... but it hurts the number one Democratic county more than anyone else. Which is exactly the point.