Monday, February 27, 2017

Rizer Amendments To Pate Bill Would Cut Voting Days, Hours

Well the good news is Rick Bertrand's bill that would cut early voting from six weeks to two doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

The bad news is That amendments to Secretary of State Paul Pate's "Voter Integrity" (sic) act, currently numbered House Study Bill 93, would cut voting days, hours and options.

The 11 page amendment by GOP Rep. Ken Rizer, chair of the State Government Committee, would among other things:
  • Close the polls for primary and general elections an hour earlier at 8 PM
  • Cut the early voting window from 40 days to 29
  • Make auditors wait an extra week to mail ballots
  • Make all election day registration voters in some precincts cast provisional ballots
  • Eliminate the still very popular straight ticket voting option.
The Neutral False Equivalence Party Hater Objective Journalists in the room will probably rejoice at the proposal to eliminate straight tickets. But the truth is, a lot of voters like this option. In Johnson County last year, 31.5% of Johnson County voters used the straight ticket option.

My personal reason for choosing a straight ticket: It's the only way to vote for a party. Most of the world does this, and doesn't suffer with America's infatuation with I Vote The Person Not The Party. In these polarized times affiliation may be the most relevant fact. 

Trivia: In 2008, Johnson County had more straight ticket Green voters than there were votes for the Green presidential candidate! People marked the straight ticket to show support the party, but then crossed over right away for Obama to make sure he won.

Not trivia: Other than marking the straight ticket box, straight ticket voters behaved a lot like the 68.5% of voters who didn't mark the straight ticket.
  • Johnson County two party straight ticket vote : 71.2% Democratic, 28.8% Republican
  • Two party presidential vote: Clinton 70.5%, Trump 29.5%

That's within a point. Neither side is gaining a big advantage. The disadvantage is: an harder time for voters who have difficulty marking the ballot, a longer stay in the booth, and thus a longer wait to get into that booth.

(Also lengthening the line: A new requirement for people using election day registration. They'll need to be checked against a felony file, which should work OK with precincts using electronic pollbooks. But in precincts that don't, and the transition is going to take some time, those voters will need to cast provisional ballots, which takes a lot more poll worker time and thus the lines grows. And just in general, scanners and electronic pollbooks are being over-sold as a speed up and an excuse for IDs.)

So you may have a little more work to do in the booth - and an hour less time to do it. Rizer's amendment moves the poll closing time for primary and general elections from 9 PM to 8. That's in line with other elections in Iowa, and I suppose consistency is good.

But whenever you take away an option, you put that same voter in a now longer line at a different time. The amendments change Iowa's poll closing time to 8 PM. That brings primary and general elections in line with Iowa city and school election, and I suppose you get a point for consistency... and general elections see much higher turnout than local elections.

Johnson County used to collect turnout data at 8 PM, for exactly the reason that proposals to close at 8 were always coming up and we wanted data. (When Travis Weipert took office in 2013, we moved that call-in to 6 PM, because that gave us time to get resources out to precincts that needed it. By 8 PM, it's really too late.)

In the last election where we have data, the 2012 presidential, we had 909 voters between 8 and 9 PM, compared to a day-long average of 2290 an hour. So not great, but not bad. But there was a definite pattern: The last hour turnout was heavier in town and in student areas, and lighter in the rural precincts. Unlike straight tickets, that gives one side an advantage.

The voting options are not only cut on the late end - they're cut on the early end as well. Rizer would move the first day of in person early voting from 40 days before the election to 29 days out.

That's better than Rick Bertrand's bill last week that would have cut early voting to 15 days. (Word is Bertrand's bill has little support, but I'm always suspicious.) But it still takes choices away from voters who already have their minds made up, at a time when ballots are already required to be ready under federal law for overseas and military voters.

In Johnson County, we saw 17,764 voters at our office over 40 days. 2728 of that was during the seven business days that would be eliminated under the Rizer amendment. That's close to that many more people in the line the remaining four weeks, and a few people with travel or other obligations who don't get that chance.

The new 29 day requirement would also apply to satellite sites.  Johnson County saw 584 voters (including me) 40 days before the election at the Iowa City Library in 2016, and 766 on that same date in 2012. 

Opening day excitement can move, but eliminating a week and a half pushes the workload that much later. A county that got hit with a lot of legally binding petitions for satellite sites could find itself in a time crunch. Johnson County got 27 petitions in 2010, mainly from the campaign that wanted to lower the bar admission age back to 19. (See my collected rants here. Still pissed, Hayek.) 

In order to schedule all the sites, we had to start five weeks before the election, on days that would be eliminated under these amendments. In fact, the single biggest satellite site in county and probably state history, 1343 voters at a UIowa dorm, was 35 days before election day. Without that extra week, we would have had to double and triple up sites on later days - and I still have PTSD from that election.

You probably don't care about that, but a reality of election administration is that the workload is backloaded, and every task that can be accomplished earlier is a blessing. Rizer also moves one more big job back a week.

I'm curious what the argument is for changing the first day to mail out ballots to 35 days before the election. At present, the first wave of ballots has to be mailed out 40 days before the election, but it may be done earlier. As I've noted, the ballots have to be ready 45 days out for overseas voters. It's not uncommon for offices to the. mail the domestic ballots out early the next week, 43 to 41 days out.

Of Johnson County's 15,048 domestic mail requests, 5415, over a third, were requested 35 days out or earlier.

Rizer's proposed 35 days reduces the turnaround time available to voters (and perhaps more to the point, the chase time for staffers). Some "domestic" mail, to the far-flung Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, takes a long time to arrive, and many of these voters are not eligible for overseas or military ballots.

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