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.

1 comment:

C.J. said...

Don't forget about the different deadlines for receiving absentee ballots due to the multiple canvass dates. If you have a city with runoff provisions, that ballot is due by Thursday. School elections have a Friday deadline. "Regular" cities have a Monday deadline.

So, what happens when the ballot of a voter in a runoff city shows up in the mail on Friday morning? It's too late to be counted for the city races, but would be "on time" for the school races. However, you can't count just the school races on that ballot, so the entire ballot probably has to be invalidated.