Monday, March 27, 2017

Election Law In Need Of Grownup Supervision

What happens when you pass a law that's literally impossible to follow? Paul Pate is about to find out... but should have known better in the first place. Settle in for another long technical post.

Pate has been bragging about "listening" to auditors of both parties as tweaks are made to House File 516, the voter ID - oops, "integrity" (sic) - bill that's he's been the point man for all session. Of course, if he had really been listening to the auditors, he would have dropped the whole thing when they came out in opposition. But we're all grownups here so we know how this ball game is played.

Or do we? The grownups don't seem to be in charge at all, given some of the childish mistakes in the Senate bill.

Last Thursday morning, shortly before Senate debate began, Roby Smith dropped a long amendment to HF516 that changed several provisions. I outlined those amendments, which the Senate passed later Thursday, here.

Leaving aside the ideology behind the bill, two items are problematic and illustrate a serious lack of understanding of election administration. Even if Pate was not the driving force behind these amendments, he and his staff should have spotted the problems and gotten the items changed before Senate passage. One is just a nuisance but the other is impossible.

Smith's amendments change the way names are rotated on the ballot in general election partisan races. Under current law, auditors set one order for the parties which have candidates and stick with it across all precincts. The only contest in which names have to be rotated by precincts if you are electing and voting for more than one person - that is, at large supervisor races. In those you keep the order of parties but you rotate within the party like so:

Precinct 1






The funny thing about the order of parties on the ballot is that it's one of the very, very few things done at the auditor's discretion. Which almost always means that the auditor's own party goes first - except in Johnson County in 2012 when out of spite lame duck auditor Tom Slockett listed the Republicans first after he lost the Democratic primary.

The Senate-passed version of the bill takes away that discretion. Instead it requires that the two largest parties rotate by precinct: If Republicans are first in precinct 1, Democrats are first in precinct 2. This leaves the Libertarians, who worked hard for decades for the full major party status they finally earned in 2016, still lumped in with the small fry.

The small fry are also required to rotate by precinct. So if the Anti-Masonic Party is first in precinct 1, they drop to the bottom in precinct 2, and the Bull Moose, Federalists, Know Nothings and Whigs each move up a notch.

Maybe you think that's more fair (I'm sure the Libertarians don't); like I keep saying, I've never been convinced ballot order makes a difference. Personally I think it's spite-motivated because the largest counties all have Democratic auditors. But that's not the point. Here's the point:

It's technically impossible.

At least two of the state's four election software systems cannot program a ballot with the kind of two-layered rotation that the Senate bill requires. And no one in the Senate Republican caucus bothered to check before passing the bill, and no one in Paul Pate's office stepped in on Thursday to say Ix-Nay on the Otation-Ray, Oby-Ray.

This morning Amendment H1238 appeared, with no sponsor listed. The amendment eliminates the minor party - oops, I mean the major Libertarian Party and minor party - layer of rotation, and instead requires only that Democrats and Republicans rotate by precinct.

The screw-up means that the bill now has to make another trip back to the Senate. Which may not be a bad thing... because maybe we can fix another problem.

As noted, the Senate added back in a provision (first proposed then dropped in the House) that would cut the in person early voting period from 40 days down to 29, and would also make auditors wait until 29 days out before sending out the mailed ballots. (Why 29? Because that's a Monday and it gives Democrats two fewer weekends to chase down those mailed ballots.)

Because of the later mail out date, Smith's Senate amendments pushed several general election filing deadlines back five to eight days. Smith bragged during debate, with a straight face, that this was one of the ways the bill expanded voting rights (can't make this shit up) because it gave candidates more time to file.

The assumption seemed to be: if ballots are going out later, auditors have more prep time, so we can move these deadlines back.

But auditors don't have more prep time at all. We have less - because we still have to have the ballots ready on the same date we did before.

Under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ("UOCAVA" in election speak) ballots have to be ready to mail to overseas voters 45 days before the election. The deadline is so early and so strict that states which traditionally had September primaries, like New York and Wisconsin, have had to move those election dates back so that UOCAVA ballots could be ready in time.

Several legislators, of both parties, seemed to be unaware of UOCAVA's 45 day requirement. Smith had to be coached by someone while some Democratic senators were expressing fears that their troops, Peace Corps kids and overseas students would be hurt by the 29 day law. All those people are UOCAVA-eligible.

Most overseas voters prefer to get their election materials by email (so would many domestic voters if given the choice). They still have to print it out and mail it back, with only a few exceptions. But some still want the printed paper ballot physically mailed to them, and they have that right. And to even have the file to send to the voter, the programming needs to be complete.

So under the Senate passed version of the bill, auditors will have to rush to get their ballots programmed and printed in time for the overseas voters, then sit on the ever-growing pile of requests for 11 extra days until the new law allows us to finally mail the domestic ballots.

The message doesn't seem to have gotten across the rotunda, as House majority leader Chris Hagenow sent out a constituent newsletter in which he bragged that the current 40 day early voting window would remain in place.

Since the bill has to go back to the Senate anyway to fix the rotation screw-up, and since the arguments for sending ballots out later are full of holes, this is something the House could do to make this bill stink a little less. Put the 40 days back in. Let the voters who have their minds made up, who aren't going to be swayed by anything in a debate, get their business done and get them out of the way, so the line is shorter for the people who want to vote later.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Why Combining City And School Elections Is A Bad Idea

Update: Despite my eloquent arguments and flawless logic, this got passed and signed anyway.

I'm behind the curve on this one, seeing as the House passed House File 566 on Wednesday. But since no one else seems to have written about it, I'm actually ahead of the curve, so I better write this before the Senate votes.

HF566, sponsored by Jake "The Blocker" Highfill, would eliminate the September odd year school election and move school offices and issues to the current city election cycle in November of odd years. The argument for combining city and school elections seems to be that it would boost turnout and save money.

We already saved some money by getting rid of school elections in even years and going to four year terms as of 2010-11. But money seems to be a persuasive argument, HF566 passed with a relatively bipartisan 68-31 vote. Several Democrats crossed over to vote yes while three Republicans were opposed.

Whether a combined city-school election will boost turnout is yet to be seen. It won't approach the 60% range of governor years or the 80% range of presidential years. My data shows that only about 40% of our county's active status voters have ever voted in anything other than a general election. (That counts partisan primaries, which in Johnson County are mostly about local offices.) That's better than the 10 to 20% we usually see in local elections... but that's a maximum, not a norm.

The promised cost savings are very questionable. At best, the combined election will cost as much as holding the two elections separately does now. At worst, it will actually increase costs. And there's also an unspoken agenda behind this bill.

Unfortunately, to explain why combining city and school elections is a bad idea I have to get very technical and kind of long.

City elections are not county-wide, since anyone living in an unincorporated area is not able to vote. School elections are county-wide, since everyone lives in a school district.

However, school districts almost always cross county lines. The tiny Lisbon school district, for example, is in FOUR counties. If you REALLY wanted to reform things, you could work on straightening out school district and/or county lines so that school districts were no longer based on where great-grandpa wanted to send grandma to school in 1960 when Iowa went from township schools to school districts.

Under current law, elections for each school district are conducted by one county, called the "control county."  Johnson County controls four districts. The Iowa City district is the only one entirely in Johnson County. We also control Clear Creek Amana, Lone Tree, and Solon, all of which cross county lines. We even run a polling place outside our county boundaries, in Amana.

(I still can't figure out how my father in law Bob Steele arranged that shotgun marriage. No, not my marriage to his daughter! I mean the Clear Creek-Amana merger.)

This means that we have voters from other counties coming in to Johnson County to vote in one of "our" elections. Likewise, voters in our eight other school districts vote in school elections run by other counties. Some of these populations are big - we have more Johnson County voters in the College Community district, whose elections are run by Linn County, than we do in the Lone Tree district. We also have 500 or more voters in Mid-Prairie and West Branch.

Most of these populations are very small. We have fewer 100 Johnson County voters in Lisbon and Highland, under 50 in Williamsburg and West Liberty, and all of FOUR Mt. Vernon school district voters.

Under HF566, the concept of "control county" goes away. If you have any voters in your county, your county has an election. That boosts costs for printing and costs for workers. You're programming and printing a ballot, and opening a polling place, for as few as four registered voters. In fact, we've had Williamsburg school district elections where none of couple dozen Johnson County voters participated.

With numbers that low you risk secrecy of the ballot problems. At present, the control county canvasses all the vote.  Under HF566, each county canvasses its votes, then submits its canvass to what used to be the control county, which has a kind of meta-canvass a week later. So if only one Mt. Vernon person votes, that's reported in the Johnson County canvass, and you know how they voted.

The single biggest cost of any election is poll workers, which are hired at a minimum of three per precinct. Cities and schools are billed for their own elections and have the option of combining precincts. All Johnson County's school districts combine precincts; of the three cities with multiple precincts only North Liberty combines precincts for city elections.

For a Johnson County school election, we open 18 precincts: 10 in the Iowa City district, five in Clear Creek Amana (that includes the Amana precinct physically located in Iowa County), two for Solon and one for Lone Tree. In city elections we open 40: 24 in Iowa City, seven in Coralville, one vote center for the six North Liberty precincts, and eight smaller cities with one precinct each.

So that's 18 precincts for one election plus 40 precincts for another election equals 58 precincts worth of poll workers to pay. Which almost exactly equals the 57 precincts worth of poll workers we have to pay for one county-wide election... which is what the city-school combined election would be.

There might be some limited opportunities to combine precincts... but the cost savings would come from combining precincts, not from combining elections.  The bill appears to discourage this: "Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, for city and school elections the commissioner shall, whenever practicable, designate polling places so that an eligible elector will be assigned to vote at the same polling place to which the eligible elector would be assigned to vote at the general election."

A combined precinct wouldn't help those voters who at present travel into a neighboring county to vote in school or city elections, because they have to vote within their county. So they may have may have a longer trip.

(Sure they can vote by mail... but I notice all the automatic permanent absentee amendments to the voter ID bill got voted down on party lines.)

The four Mt. Vernon voters are closer to Mt. Vernon, which is why great-grandpa sent grandma to school there, but now to vote they'd go to Solon. People on Bickford Drive, in the city of West Branch and in the West Branch school district but over the line into Johnson County, would have to come almost all the way in to Iowa City to vote at the Church of Christ on American Legion Road. And the voters just south of Lone Tree over the Louisa County line would have to go all the way to Columbus Junction, because Louisa County has very aggressively combined precincts. When I ran for the House in 1996, Louisa was the core of my district and had 13 precincts; they're now down to just four.

What could NOT be combined would be ballot styles. Every voter in every election has to get a ballot with just the right offices on it, no more and no less, and sometimes that means prepping a style of ballot for a very small number of people.That also means testing all those styles of ballots, with a precise pattern of test votes spelled out by law. The number of styles has a proportionally bigger impact on costs than the number of copies, and each new style means at least one pack of 50 ballots, and almost always more.

In general elections, these combinations ("splits") are based on voting precinct, city and/or township, and legislative district. Last November, Johnson County had 75 styles of ballots. Some of those may have had the same combination of offices and the same rotation of names.  But in general elections we have to report absentee totals by precinct.  That's easier to manage by printing different ballots for each precinct and having the machine do it, rather than sorting absentee envelopes by precinct, running them in batches, and hoping for the best.

Looking at city and school elections separately, the most ballot styles we could have in a school election is 21 - 18 school precincts, three of which are split between different Kirkwood director districts. You might get less, depending on the number of candidates. Names have to rotate, but random chance might mean two or more precincts would have the same rotation of names, and we don't have to break out absentee totals by precinct, so we can use the same ballots in more than one precinct.

For a city election Iowa City, because of its primary system, would have at most six styles for the 24 precincts (if you had three at-large candidates and two in a district race), and more likely just four styles with four at large and two in a district.

You want to be looking at least common multiples to figure this out, and Iowa City's 24 precincts are divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12. What's bad is if you get prime numbers of candidates in different races: If you have races with 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 candidates, you have 420 possible combinations, so before you start over again you've run out of precincts.

So let's say Iowa city has six combos. Add to that eight for the smaller cities, seven for Coralville, and six for North Liberty (even with a vote center, we still have to have ballot styles for each precinct) and you get at most 27 styles for a city election. Add that to 21 school styles, and you have 48.

But you're not adding. You're layering and multiplying. The chances of getting lucky and getting the same rotation of names and combination of offices and thus the same ballot style diminishes rapidly the more layers of boundaries you add.

HF566 tries to address this by eliminating the current system of rotation. Instead, names would be drawn and would be in the same order across a whole city or district.  Every voter in the Iowa City school district AND city of Iowa City would have the same exact ballot. You might think that's too big an advantage to give the one person drawn first across a school district of 70,000 registered voters, and the studies would back you up, but I've never been convinced ballot order makes a difference.

For a combined city/school election, the splits would be based on city and/or township, school district, and Kirkwood director district. There are more combinations of districts, because we have more school districts (12) than legislative districts (5) and because rural townships are almost always split between different school districts. (Only three city precincts are split between legislative districts, because of annexations that happened after the map was drawn.)

Taking away rotations makes our number of ballot styles 32. That's a pretty solid 32 which will vary little. Maybe 31 or 30, depending on which Kirkwood districts are on the ballot. That pretty certain 30something is not much less than the maximum of 48 styles in seperate city and school elections. (Leaving rotation in would have created as many as 91 different ballot styles. ) And remember, one of those styles is four our for Mt. Vernon voters.

I like that typo so I left it.

Because so many rural precincts, and some urban precincts, are split between school districts, poll workers would have to juggle more ballot styles, complicating their jobs and increasing the chance for human error. The Scott Township precinct would have to keep track of five different ballot styles - rural voters for four different school districts, plus city of West Branch voters.

(In next year's primary. some precincts will have six kinds of ballots: two legislative districts and three parties. But in fairness the Libertarians earned that.)

So despite having just one election instead of two, we've wiped out our savings by having to open more precincts, and we still have to print about the same number of ballot styles. Why are people pushing this?

Here's where the other agenda comes in.

HF566 also keeps city and school contests from appearing on general election ballots. Historically school elections have been barred from general election ballots because of different precinct lines, and that's now clarified in law, but there were some transitional issues last year which forced some school contests onto the November ballot, which was a headache for all concerned. The Iowa City district opted for a separate election last July rather than dealing with November.

But city elections have been done easily in the past without forcing any additional ballot styles at all. (Precincts that combine city and unincorporated voters already have separate ballot styles, because rural voters have township officials to elect.) This had been convenient for voters and has saved net tax dollars (cities pay a bit more, because general election turnout is higher, but it saves counties money). In fact, if you're itching to combine something, city and general election makes more sense than city and school.

So why change something that seems to work? Because higher general election turnout attracts the Wrong Kind Of Voters, people who are Not Taxpayers.

Remember, the subtext behind voter ID laws is the question of universal suffrage itself, so in this context "taxpayers" can be understood as property tax payers.  People (like me) who pay their share of property taxes through their landlord and not to the treasurer directly don't count.  Neither do people whose landlord is the University Residence Hall office, who might petition to get the bar admission age on a general election ballot (they lost that one in 2010, but barely).

Instead, city and school public measures would have to go on a lower turnout special election ballot.

HF566 limits the number of allowable special election dates for ballot measures to four dates in a year: one each on March, May, and August, or the regular city-school combined election in November. (Special elections for vacant offices can still occur at any time - except, under HF566, with a general election.)

That increases the chances that ballot issues will have to compete against each other. And when money measures have to compete against each other, it hurts both issues. For example consider Johnson County in 2014. The county had a bond issue for courthouse renovation and expansion (having scaled back the "justice center" plan that failed twice), while the cities - well, basically, Iowa City with more than half the population - was trying for a local option sales tax.

Some subset of people voted yes on one and no on the other because they thought the one was more important than the other.  Both measures fell just short. The courthouse plan needed 60% and got 57; the sales tax needed a simple majority in the bloc of five contiguous cities and got 46%.

Granted, there were a lot of other factors involved, including the fact that the sales tax had very little campaign and the courthouse plan had no campaign at all. But close enough that the competition between the two issues may have been a factor.

Fewer possible election dates, and forcing cities and schools to share the same ballot, while at the same time keeping these measures off the high turnout general election ballot, serves the agenda of the anti-taxers, the automatic No vote. And that, more than "cost savings" and "higher turnout," is why there's the push for combining these elections.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

More Restrictions in Senate Amendments To ID Bill

UPDATE: Amendment below passed, full bill passed Senate. Now goes back to House to reconcile the two versions of bill.

Iowans would lose 11 days of early voting under proposed Senate amendments to House File 516, the voter ID bill passed by the House two weeks ago.

The comprehensive amendment 3229 offered by Republican Senator Roby Smith would push the first day of early voting to 29 days before the election, rather than the present 40. The shorter early voting window had been included in an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ken Rizer, but he withdrew the amendment before House debate.

In Johnson County, we saw 2728 in-person early voters during the seven business days that would be eliminated under the Smith amendment.

Smith's amendment includes seven other main provisions that I'll look at while I'm home for lunch here (my exact work schedule seems to be of great interest).

The Bad:
  • First time voters who had registered by mail would have to show additional proof of address before casting their first ballot.
Addresses of new voters are already confirmed by mail. This would also be an administrative headache, as we would have to track an additional piece of data for each voter.
  • The Secretary of State's office would be able to review county records to assure compliance.
During House debate, Rizer offered the unsubstantiated charge that one county refuses to prosecute voter fraud cases. When asked, Rizer refused to name a county. This provision looks like an excuse for witch hunts, and is one more example of Republican hypocrisy on the concept of "local control," and takes authority away from the elected county attorney and auditor.

Gee, I wonder where they'll look first.
  • Increases number of absentee board observers/challengers by parties from 1 per party to 5.
Not necessarily bad in itself, but it seems like an indicator of a ramped-up Republican ballot challenge effort like we saw in Johnson County in 2004. The goal may be to gather "evidence" of "fraud" to come back and pass an even stricter bill in the future.

Your Mileage May Vary:
  • Would require auditors to rotate Democrats and Republicans in first position on the ballot by precinct.
I've never been convinced that first position on the ballot matters, though people and studies say it does.  This is a little more work but not a lot more work than the rotations we already have to do.

At present, ballot order in partisan election is one of the very, very few things that are left to the auditor's discretion. (Translation: the auditor's party almost always goes first.)

What's interesting is that this amendment references a code section that specifies the two largest parties.  Even though the Libertarians gained full party status in 2016 based on Gary Johnson's vote totals, under this code section they're still less than fully equal. Just the Democrats and Republicans rotate at the top.  
  • Birth date required on voter eligibility slips
I suppose this is another way to catch "fraud," but some voters don't like to emphasize their age. Personally, I like to joke with obviously old women: "We have to make sure you're 18, you could have fooled me." Please don't tell my wife. 
  • Some general election filing deadlines moved five to eight days later
In addition to shortening the in-person voting period, the amendments have the domestic ballots mailed out 29 days out. The filing deadlines also move later, presumably because auditors would now have "more time" (HA!) to prep ballots. That doesn't fly, because under federal law the overseas ballots have to be ready 45 days out anyway.

The good:
  • Young people just under 18 would be able to vote in the June primary, if they turn 18 by the general election date. This would make primaries consistent with the caucuses.
Good, but it could set up a confusing scenario.  Let's take a voter who turns 18 just before the general election.
Caucus in February: gets to "vote."
Special election in March: can't vote.
Primary in June: gets to vote.
Special election in September: can't vote.
General election: gets to vote.
This small expansion is a good thing, and will be much valued by the extremely small number of young voters who will use it. Though it hardly makes up for the rest of the bill.

UPDATE: One more item that struck me as too trivial to mention. Party affiliation would no longer be allowed to appear on ballot materials except for the primary. A few labels and forms include party, simply because it's required for the primary. That struck me as a minor technical provision, as I've only had a handful of grumbles about it in 20 years. But to Smith, it was a Big Deal and Unacceptable. So I mention it now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

In the Spin Cycle with Bobby Kaufmann

Johnson County is not quite solid blue. The greater metro Solon area is in a red House district held by Bobby "Buttercup" Kaufmann, last seen making noise about challenging Dave Loebsack next year. (Bring. It. On.)

That means a chunk of Johnson County Democrats get the Bobby Kaufmann newsletter. This week, he repeats GOP spin on a false analogy that quite a few Republicans repeated in testimony and House debate on the voter ID integrity (sic) bill:
I want to make one point very clear.  Showing your ID in the voting process is NOT new to Iowa.  When Democrats controlled the Governorship and Legislature (2007-2010), they enacted a Photo Identification law that is still on the books.  Democrats enacted same-day registration in Iowa and REQUIRED an ID be shown. That bill was supported by the ALCU (sic) and the League of Women Voters.   In the 10 years since Photo ID was enacted by Democrats, not one complaint has been levied that its caused suppression of a single person’s ability to register to vote.  I want to repeat that because it is very important.  Democrats enacted Photo ID law for same-day registrants and in the last 10 years there has been ZERO evidence of voter suppression.

The bill we passed last week extends the law Democrats passed to cover everyone that votes.
"In the 10 years since Photo ID was enacted by Democrats"?!?

Kaufmann and the Republicans are deliberately confusing the issue here.

It is true that the election day registration law passed in 2007 does include an ID requirement, though people who have an attestor who lives in the same precinct (for example, couples or roommates) do NOT need an ID. That was done as a way to EXPAND voting rights. Before 2008, if you weren't registered in the county 10 days before an election, you were just out of luck and could not vote.
The voter ID integrity (sic) bill is designed instead to LIMIT voting by putting up artificial barriers in an effort to solve a "problem," in person voter impersonation, that simply does not exist.  Comparing new voting restrictions to a voter expansion effort that over 5200 voters in Johnson County used last fall is worse than cynical.

The worst part is, if it weren't for a nasty split inside the Democratic Party in 2012, Bobby Kaufmann would not have made it to the legislature in the first place.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bill Would Force Supervisor Districts On Biggest Counties

What local control?

In yet another below the radar bill in the Iowa Legislature, the state's five largest counties would be required to elect supervisors by district, and would not have the option for at-large supervisors that the 94 other counties have.

House File 486, introduced by the House Local Government Committee, "requires a county with a population of 130,000 or greater to select and maintain a representation plan for the county board of supervisors, whereby the county is divided into districts and members of the board of supervisors must reside in a district and be elected by the registered voters of that district."

That 130,000 is suspiciously close to Johnson County's 2010 Census count of 130,882, and Black Hawk's 131,090. Both counties elect supervisors at large, as does Scott County. The state's largest county, Polk, already has a district plan.

Linn County is in limbo. They voted in 2007 to expand the Board of Supervisors from three elected at large to five elected from districts. Last fall, voters rolled the number of supervisors back to three, but the question of whether to elect from districts or at large is not yet settled.

(Also of note: These five counties, along with Story, were the only places in the state to vote for Hillary Clinton last fall. And another below the radar bill that singles out the largest five counties, House Study Bill 73,  would allow rural townships to secede and join neighboring counties.)

A proposed amendment by Democratic Rep. Chris Hall would lower the population bar to 100,000, which would have the effect of adding only Woodbury, his own county. Woodbury County already has districts, but their plan only requires supervisors to live in the district, and all voters in the county can vote on every district's race. 

Under current law, petitioners have one opportunity each two years to file a petition to change the structure of the county board. The bar is high - 10% of the vote for governor or president. In Johnson County that would be about 7700 signatures due by June 1 of this year. Local Republicans have reportedly been interested in a district system for years but have never filed a petition.

If a petition is filed, voters choose from three plans in an August election:
  • Supervisors elected at large (Johnson County's current system)
  • Supervisors elected from districts. Supervisors must live in district, but all county voters may vote on every seat. (Woodbury County's current system)
  • Supervisors elected from districts, must live in district. and only district voters may vote on their district seat (Linn County's system until last year)
House File 486 would take that choice away from the voters of the five biggest counties, and would require the plan that would only let district voters vote on their own district seat.

Historically, the argument for districts in Johnson County has been that rural voters are under-represented. But that hasn't been the case. As recently as 2000, all five supervisors had rural addresses. The three supervisors currently living in the Iowa City limits is just what the city would have based on its population under a district system.

If anything, a district system is the way to guarantee NO rural representation. Districting works by strict census numbers, with strict requirements.

2010 Johnson County Census

City 2010 Census
Iowa City 67,862
University Heights
(surrounded by Iowa City)
IC-UH Combined 68,913
Coralville 18,907
North Liberty 13,374
Tiffin 1,947
Hills 703
Lone Tree 1,300
Oxford 807
Shueyville 577
Solon 2,037
Swisher 879
City Total 109,444
Rural/West Branch Total 21,273
County Total 130,882

Ideal population for a district: 26,176

No city can be broken into more than the smallest possible number of districts. According to a 2013 comprehensive analysis by redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering, the population totals and districting rules do not allow for a rural dominated district. "You permanently lock in at least two from Iowa City and one from Coralville, and probably a third one from Iowa City and one from North Liberty."

The 2010 Linn County numbers did allow for a nearly all-rural district, but it was a monstrosity, a doughnut that surrounded the whole Cedar Rapids-Marion area.  Cedar Rapids had exactly three districts and the last district was Marion-dominated.

I haven't analyzed the numbers for Black Hawk and Scott but they are probably similar, with cities locking out rural representation.

The other way that mandatory districts hurt rural voters: If a board is dominated by urban members who never have to seek a rural vote, rural services will suffer. Why would a supervisor whose district is all in Iowa City want to pay for a road for rural Solon? (A bike path, MAYBE.)

If voters want to choose that system, they're making a mistake, but it's their choice. But once again, we see the pattern of this Republican legislature: Local control is fine, but only as long as we like what the locals are doing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Primary Runoffs: Another Bad Idea From The Iowa Legislature

Well THIS one snuck up on us.

When Brad Zaun introduced his bill requiring runoffs for inconclusive primaries again this year, I thought it was just his sore loser statement. It got through committee, but I dismissed it.

Today it passed the Senate. BIPARTISAN and UNANIMOUSLY. So this could really happen. Before I tell you why that's bad, let's get the n00bs up to speed.

Iowa law requires candidates to win 35% in a primary to claim a nomination. If no one gets 35, the nomination goes to a party convention of delegates chosen through the caucus/convention process. (I'm simplifying slightly.)

That very famously happened in the 2014 open seat Republican primary in the 3rd CD. Zaun finished first in a six way race, but well below the 35%. David Young had finished next to last, ahead of only the crazy Some Dude. (Matt Schultz was crazy but as sitting Secretary of State he was not a Some Dude.)

But Young made himself everyone's second or third choice, and by surviving to the final convention ballot, he became Not Zaun to the sizable Anyone But Zaun majority. Zaun grumbled, and introduced a bill in the 2015 session to replace the conventions with a runoff just four weeks after the primary. It went nowhere, and when Zaun had the chance to take up his beef directly with Young in the 2016 primary, he chose to run for re-election in his Urbandale senate district instead.

So when Zaun filed the runoff bill, now numbered Senate File 483, early this session, I assumed it would meet the same fate. But here we sit, with unanimous Senate passage and almost no publicity.

I'll admit the worst problem with the bill has gone away. The original draft specified the runoff date as four weeks after the primary, which would have been logistically impossible. Recounts and printing delays could have meant almost no early voting at all. The election date could have landed right on the 4th of July, and would have definitely landed during the window of that long holiday.

The bill passed today now sets the runoff date as early August. That's at least possible, though many poll workers will still be on vacations, and it adds a big task to an already full period of general election filing and prep. It would be a lot like the task that no auditor misses of running an even-year school board election just before a general election. (We've been relieved of that since 2010.)

The August date is particularly challenging in my county, as every lease in town expires on August 1. 

Iowa has had some other famous convention nominations other than the Young-Zaun battle. Most notably, Steve King was first nominated at a 2002 convention after finishing with 31% and first place in a four way primary. I may not be helping my case against runoffs with that example, especially this week.

We've also had two near-misses that would have required statewide Republican runoffs. In 2002 Doug Gross won the nomination for governor with just 35.6% in a three way race.  In the 2008 Senate primary for the right to lose to Tom Harkin, Christopher Reed won just over 35, also in a three way race. Runner-up George Eichhorn was considering a recount until the flood of 2008 took everyone's mind off it.

(Odd how the closest calls were in three way contests where the math has to split almost perfectly to keep someone under 35. The chances go up as the field grows.)

There was also a lot of convention talk before the five way 2014 Republican Senate primary, until Joni Ernst broke out of the pack in the last couple weeks to win with an absolute majority.

We laughed at "castrating hogs," but it played way better than "a farmer from Iowa who isn't even a lawyer could be chairman of the Judiciary Committee." Though, technically, Braley was correct.

Locally, our last county convention for an inconclusive primary was after a six way 1964 Democratic sheriff primary.

Elections are expensive. What does Zaun's bill say about the costs?
The bill may include a state mandate as defined in Code 14 section 25B.3. The bill makes inapplicable Code section 25B.2, 15 subsection 3, which would relieve a political subdivision from 16 complying with a state mandate if funding for the cost of 17 the state mandate is not provided or specified. Therefore, 18 political subdivisions are required to comply with any state 19 mandate included in the bill.

So county auditors and county taxpayers are stuck with the bill. It's a lot to pay just because one legislator has a chip on his shoulder about losing two races for Congress.

This, while legislators are simultaneously pushing House File 566 which would combine city and school elections, in the name of "saving costs. (It will do nothing of the kind, and there are other agendas at work, but that's another post...)

Don't forget: Iowa now has THREE full status parties which could hold primaries, as the Libertarians gained full party status last fall.

We've had two third-party primaries in recent years, with very similar turnout. The uncontested 2002 Green primary attracted 439 voters. That's not the Johnson County number. That's 439 in the whole state. And in 1998, 395 Reform Party voters participated statewide in their three-way governor primary.

The winner of that primary was perennial candidate Jim Hennager (last seen last year as the "New Independent Party Iowa" candidate for Senate). He beat the other two Some Dudes with just 39.8% of the votes. A shift of a couple dozen votes could have put him under 35%.

The Libertarians will probably pull SOME more voters than the Greens and Reform, but not a lot. In fact, since the LP earned "organization" status in 2008, the pattern at caucus and primary time was for many of those voters to cross back to the major parties. You'll see more places with ONE Libertarian, but not a lot of contested races.

But picture this scenario, which as you saw came close for the Reform Party:

In August, counties have to pay more than 5000 poll workers to open every one of Iowa's 1681 precincts from 7 AM to 9 PM for a Libertarian runoff for secretary of agriculture, because no one got 35% in a primary that drew fewer than 500 voters. Let's average that to $150 a day for each worker (we pay more, some pay less), and we're spending over $750,000, just on the workers.

Instant runoff might be a better option, but Joe Bolkcom's bill for that is dead.  In that case,
wouldn't it be better to just let keep the present system and the Libertarians settle that at a convention?

Or, for that matter, the Democrats and Republicans as well?

Personally, I'd rather see delegates, who at least in theory are committed to the party's success, settle an internal dispute, rather than interlopers.

Because in a runoff scenario, there may only be a contest on one side. That happens sometimes in regular primaries, too, but it's much more common in runoff scenarios. Should someone who picked the Democratic candidates for supervisor in June get to pick the GOP candidate for governor in August?

Rewind back to 2010. The Republicans had a hot three way race between Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Plaats, and third wheel Rod Roberts. There had been a much larger field until Branstad was recruited back into the ball game; he was the only guy who could beat Vander Plaats, and Vander Plaats was the only guy who could lose to Chet Culver. After Branstad announced, all the also rans except Roberts bailed.

But what if a couple had stayed in? What if Roberts had done a bit better, or Branstad had stumbled? What if we had faced an August runoff between Branstad and Vander Plaats? What would Democrats do?

Granted, a lot of people crossed over anyway. But at least they had the chance to vote against Tom Fiegen in a US Senate primary, and some local contests here and there. But if the ONLY game in town was Republican governor, wouldn't it be tempting to ratf*** the GOP?

And is it fair to let you vote for the Republican candidates when you had already voted for Culver?

This issue came up in a big, big way in Alabama in 1986:
The Democratic primary resulted in a runoff between Lieutenant Governor Bill Baxley and Attorney General Charles Graddick. Graddick, the more conservative of the two Democrats (Deeth's note: at this time George Wallace was still the incumbent governor), won the runoff election by a slim margin. Baxley challenged the results, and claimed that Graddick violated Democratic Party rules by encouraging people who voted in the Republican primary to cross over and vote in the Democratic runoff election.

While Republicans in the state have held open primaries for years, the Democrats bar Republicans and Independents from voting in its primary election. This challenge went to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled that crossover voting had taken place in large numbers and that the Democratic Party either had to select Baxley as the nominee or hold another runoff election. The party opted to name Baxley as its nominee.
 Baxley went on to lose, and the Alabama Democrats have never really recovered.

This kind of crossover shenanigans is the same reason Iowa's parties have always opted to have their caucuses on the same night at the same time, to keep people from voting in both nomination contests. It's a good principle and a good precedent.

I'm not a fan of crossover voting in primaries, but I'm in the minority there. At the very least, though, fairness demands that voters choose once and participate in only one party's process. If the voters deadlock, let the activists who are committed to victory and not to interference make the choice. There's no "crisis" that needs to be solved here, other than one legislator's bruised ego.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Thoughts from the House Voter ID Debate

I spend most of Wednesday night and Thursday morning following the Iowa House debate on House File 516, the "integrity" (sic) bill that includes voter ID requirements.

Earlier Wednesday the House had passed a gun bill that among many other things overturns city and county weapon free zones in their office buildings. So at least if an angry voter shoots me, I'll have their ID.

The dark humor isn't really a laughing matter. I was lucky not to see many angry voters this fall, but the treasurer's office workers often have to give people bad news, about late tax penalties or holds on their plates. I've even seen arrests for people trying to pass fake titles. Those conversations are volatile enough without adding weapons to the mix.
The debate was predictable: eloquent statements and pointed questions from Democrats, stilted and awkward replies from Republicans, uncomfortable vibes all around. The tension peaked late Wednesday night when Kirsten Running-Marquardt cornered bill sponsor Ken Rizer into admitting that his own driver's license had an old address and thus would be unacceptable at the polls.

The conclusion was also predictable: a Republican move for a time certain end to debate, a rapid-fire vote-o-rama through a score of Democratic amendments with no Republican defectors, and a party line final vote.  We'll repeat it all on the Senate side in a few weeks, Terry Branstad will sign it on the way out the door, and then we'll adapt.

The current bill includes a few changes from Rizer's original amendments. Most notably, Rizer's move to cut the early voting window down to 29 days was dropped. So unless it's amended again or other legislation passes, we'll still have 40 days for voting.

One floor amendment was approved, sponsored by Rizer himself. It adds a fourth "blackout" week during which no special elections may be held on either side of a general election. Current law has a three week blackout either side.

That move was needed because the bill now allows only 21 days after the election to complete the new audit requirements. A Democratic amendment to extend that to 45 days was shot down. Not to be a whiner, because I know I have a responsibility to the public here, but that's going to be a challenge. Also, pro tip to black box voting types: A machine count is more accurate than a hand count.

During debate, Rizer argued that voting with an ID was "as easy as the Hy-Vee express lane," a phrase Democrats repeatedly threw back at him. I was disappointed that Bruce Hunter's amendment to include many additional forms of ID did not include Hy-Vee Fuel Saver cards. Now THAT would be real proof you're an Iowan.

Rizer also claimed that one county flat out refuses to prosecute voter fraud cases, but when asked he refused to name the county.

A few other highlights from the debate (thanks especially to Art Staed for livetweets):
One of the most ambiguous parts of the bill:

But are they ILLEGAL aliens?

Republican Kevin Koester grumbled about seeing the names of long-gone adult children on the voter rolls. He has clearly not seen any of my redundant posts about voter file maintenance. It's not "fraud," it's Following The Law:
  • The law is designed to make it hard to cancel voters without their knowledge.
  • No one is cancelled for not voting. It all depends on mail.
  • That adult child may be on Inactive status, which means "pre-cancellation," not "weak voter."
  • As long as the letter carrier keeps delivering mail to the adult child (our language needs a word for that) at mom and dad's, the auditor has to assume the adult child still lives there.
  • Mom and dad can't get them cancelled; we need the voter themselves to take care of it.
Our county doesn't HAVE one extra worker per precinct to add. We're already begging and pleading and desperate and the single best thing you can do to help is contact the office and sign up.
We use this term so casually now for any kind of exemption for a pre-existing circumstance that I had to sit and stare at this sentence for a long time before I could find other words to describe it. In the Jim Crow era, you could be exempted from poll taxes if your grandfather had been eligible to vote. White grandpas were; black grandpas were 3/5 of a person.
Taylor was discussing the impending end of straight ticket voting. He's a labor guy and earlier in the week he announced for the Senate seat of retiring Wally Horn, the dean of the legislature.
Before the House debate, a Monday night public hearing invited public comment. Opponents heavily outnumbered supporters on the sign-up list, but the actual speakers were close to 50/50. The pro remarks were redundant, repetitive, and said the same thing over and over again repeatedly:
But the final speaker was a revelation.
The mindset embodied in Hiscox's statement really gets to the core of what voter ID laws are all about: they question the legitimacy of universal suffrage itself. There's an attitude that people on the margins of society - the young, the newcomers especially Those Chicago People If You Know What I Mean, the naturalized, the renters, poor, the disabled, those who don't speak the dominant language, and all other kinds of the Different - are somehow less legitimate Americans that middle aged home owners.

Even here in the People's Republic of Johnson County I've seen bumper stickers proclaiming "Only Taxpayers Should Vote." The implication is that "taxpayers" means "property tax paying homeowners." Even I don't quite count because my property taxes go through my landlord before they go to the treasurer.

You see this kind of nastiness most clearly in local elections. Iowa City's former city clerk could barely say the word "student" without obvious contempt, especially during the era of our three votes on the bar admission age. (Collected rants/#18IsAdult)

After a 2008 Johnson County bond issue passed narrowly there was much GOP discussion that college students should not be allowed to vote here. Measures requiring college students to vote absentee from their parents' address have been frequent features of at least draft Republican platforms. That's despite a 1970s Supreme Court ruling that students have the right to register and vote in their college communities, and despite my career-long experience that a student is far more likely to successfully cast a ballot here than Back Home. If the voting age of 18 wasn't locked into the Constitution, they'd go after that too.

Meanwhile other measures, that appear dead but are very telling, seek to expand voting rights for property owners. One bill would have allowed rural voters who live near cities in zoning "fringe areas" to vote in city elections. And an Iowa Republican platform plank states: "We support the right of property owners to vote on bond issues in any district where they pay property tax whether a resident of the district or not."

Most legislators are smart enough to sugarcoat their remarks in "integrity" and avoid the rigid ideological language of the platform committee. But Hiscox was blunt enough to drop the mask of civility and reveal the true, ugly underside of the rotten log.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Lessons From A Bizarre Career

During my morning trip through the obituaries in search of dead voters to kill, I noticed a long-forgotten name who inadvertently taught us some valuable political lessons. This is definitely NOT the most important political story in Iowa today, but it's certainly colorful.

Rosanne Freeburg, formerly of Cedar Rapids, passed away last month in North Carolina. Her brief, bizarre political career happened during my transition from professional journalist to campaign staffer in 1992.

Freeburg had filed in the Democratic US Senate primary against Jean Lloyd-Jones, then a state senator and very clearly the favorite. The legislative session was dragging on and I was having trouble pinning Jean down. So I interviewed Freeburg because I had a half hour of dead air to fill and because I wanted some leverage to get Lloyd-Jones to move me up her schedule.

The answer to my first question took 15 minutes of my allocated 30, and by three minutes in I knew this lady was nuts. I can't remember exactly what she stood for, I just remember the long, impossible to edit sentences (back before digital editing; we actually used razor blades and tape) incorporating multiple unrelated topics. Thus, the first lesson from Freeburg:
  • The paradigm of objective journalism does not allow reporters to state the obvious when a candidate is clearly nuts. This turned out to be extremely important in 2016.
I was already on my way out of journalism, largely because of the objective paradigm, but I knew the rules. By about 10 minutes in I knew that her answers and syntax would be a load of work to slice and splice, and I knew how she would answer any question. So I condensed my seven or eight remaining questions down to two and just let her ramble. Since I wasn't allowed to say "this woman is nuts," I would have to let the listeners conclude that.

I may still have needed to edit for time because answer three took her past the half hour; if I remember right I just lopped off the end of the tape at the 29 minute mark when she briefly paused for breath. I do very clearly remember almost pushing her out the door because she wanted to keep going, and she kept repeating the phrase "self-anointed, self-appointed."

That phrase leads us to our second lesson:
  • Be very, very careful about playing favorites in a primary, especially if you have a party title and especially if you're dealing with a candidate who is clearly nuts.
Freeburg's beef was that state party officials were very clearly in favor of Lloyd-Jones, on account of Jean was not crazy. Specifically Freeburg was mad that Jean's campaign was under the same roof as IDP HQ. I don't know the legalities but presumably the appropriate paperwork was in order. The Objective Press made too much of this because the 1992 primary was a real yawner and like me they had dead air and column inches to fill. (This is back when there were far, far more working journalists than we have today.)

This was the legislative session when Iowa's famous $3 gift law was passed, because of a scandal involving a state senator. Lloyd-Jones was stuck with the chore of chairing the ethics committee, and all anyone remembered from the stories was "Jean Lloyd-Jones, blah blah blah, ethics committee." No no no people. She was the investigatOR not the investigatEE...

Between that, low turnout, and the wacky climate of 1992 - on primary day in June, Ross Perot was actually polling in first place - Freeburg won a shocking 39% of the vote and carried quite a few counties. Jean was frankly lucky that we had a high turnout supervisor primary here in her home county to boost her numbers.

Feeling vindicated by her strong showing, and still fuming at the Iowa Democratic Party for supporting (sic) the "self-anointed, self-appointed" Lloyd-Jones, Freeburg endorsed Perot and filed in the Senate race as an independent. Which leads to our third lesson:
  • Never, never, never agree to debate the third party candidates without your major party rival present.
The Iowa ballot was very, very crowded in 1992. We had a record 14 presidential candidates and the biggest ever non-presidential field, nine candidates, in the Senate race. Including one with the great name Mel Boring.

1992 was only Chuck Grassley's third Senate run but he'd already established an "unbeatable" reputation. So he saw little need to debate Lloyd-Jones. In an effort to shame him, Lloyd-Jones agreed to debate the seven third party contenders, with an empty chair for Grassley.

It backfired badly. Instead of singling out Grassley for not debating (he eventually agreed to one debate held the night before the election), it had the effect of lowering Lloyd-Jones to the level of the loonies (an actual party in the UK). And Freeburg was the looniest of all. When offered time for her closing statement, she sang "God Bless America."

Freeburg set out to run for something again in 1994.  My googling says Senate again, though that may be wrong. Or that may be right and she may not have realized that US Senate was not on the ballot that year. In any case, she never followed up and filed, and she left the state in the early 2000s.

The last lesson from Freeburg:
  • Recruit someone for every race, even the unwinnable, to avoid embarrassments exactly like Rosanne Freeburg.
Jean Lloyd-Jones was a long-shot against Grassley - she lost roughly 70-30 that fall - but she was someone the Democratic straight ticket base could support. Had she not run, Grandma Goofy would have been the Democratic nominee, the next name on the ballot below Bill Clinton. And had Art Small not done the Democrats the same favor in 2004, there would have been no Democrat at all on the ballot.

Democrats learned that lesson hard in 1992 when they failed to recruit an opponent for Jim Leach. Another eccentric fellow, who had run an asterisk independent race in 1990, had filed on the Democratic line.  When no genuine Democratic candidate filed, he became the nominee by default. The Democrats had to waste some energy that fall distancing themselves from the guy. He broke the straight ticket very high on the ballot, and in Linn County the Democrats lost three House seats.