Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Let's Everybody Run for Something: The North Liberty Election

Yes, I know everybody wants me to write The Definitive Detailed Deeth Post On What Exactly The Voter ID Law Means. Truth is, I have a pretty good idea, but that one's gonna get bookmarked and referenced for years so it needs to be Perfect, and I'm going to get paid at work for most of the research on it anyway. All I have to do when I get home is add the Partisan Blogger snark for Paul Pate.  Thanks for reading, Paul!

So instead today I'm going to write about the North Liberty election, Johnson County's first in the Era of Trump, and what exactly it means.

There's a dynamic in American politics today that everybody needs to run for something. In 96 of 99 Iowa counties that probably helps, but in the People's Republic there's a line around the block for any and all vacancies, hints of vacancies, or rumours.

Long time readers know I consider "Tusk" the real masterpiece.

So when North Liberty found itself with not one but two vacant offices, ten total candidates showed up: seven newcomers, two current office holders, and a blast from the past. The result: a mayor with less than a majority and a council member winning with just 29% of the vote.

I can't choose the appropriate cinematic metaphor for the whole North Liberty process. In turns it has reminded me of:
  • Andy Warhol's 24 hour film of the outside of the Empire State Building,
  • The worst movie I ever saw, Saturday the 14th, an unfunny parody of horror films, and
  • People who think they are acting in Game Of Thrones but are in fact in a junior high production of Game Of Thrones. 
This whole thing is Tom Salm's fault. After a couple of controversial cycles, Salm was a unifier as mayor, a steady hand on the wheel... until he unexpectedly dropped dead just months after getting re-elected in 2013.

The city council appointed one of their own, Gerry Kuhl, as mayor, then took applications for that vacant council seat. A smart young mom with some school board campaign experience put her name in, and was rewarded with a patronizing pat on the head.

So Amy Nielsen said enough of that crap and put her name in for mayor, as the seat was on the 2014 general election ballot (which will no longer be legal under the new law that combines school and city elections.). She knocked off  Kuhl, and her star rose so fast that she shot right out of mayor and into the Legislature before the term was up.

And it took so long to choose Nielsen's replacement that her first legislative session was over before it was done. The most important thing about today's election is that it should have happened at least two months ago.

It was clear from November 8 - and with all due respect to my Republican friend Royce Phillips, who lost to Nielsen in the legislative race last fall, it was reasonably expected in June 2016 - that the mayor's slot would be open again. The city was looking at a fourth mayor in the same term and the powers that be desperately wanted to avoid paying for a special election with less than a year on the term.

There were two problems with that. Petitions for city elections are based on turnout the last time the office was on the ballot.  Salm was so non-controversial that his 2013 re-election was uncontested. It would take just 26 signatures, in a city pushing 18,000 population, to force an election. There was no way out of it and everyone was in denial.

So they decided to take their time.

Actual photo from North Liberty council deliberations on mayor vacancy

The council stalled until literally the last day allowed under law - February 28, 60 days after Nielsen's resignation and nearly four months after her election to the legislature, before making a decision.
Two sitting council members, Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman, both coveted the office of mayor. Two other council members, Annie Pollock and Jim Sayre, refused to pick sides and favored an election. That left it to Brian Wayson. It was a standoff...

...until Hoffman got smart. In a jiu-jitsu move, he took his name out and backed Donahue for mayor. That "win" forced Donahue to resign his council seat, while Hoffman could go ahead and run against Donahue in a likely special election without having to resign. And sure enough, the next day Matt Pollock filed the petition - and soon after filed for mayor.

Then it seemed like pretty much everyone in North Liberty decided it was time to run for something. Kuhl attempted a comeback for council, and was joined in the race by no less than six newcomers.

The council seat won by Sarah Madsen by 33 votes over Kuhl is in fact the greater prize - mayors don't vote and Donahue has to run again in November. Madsen, in contrast, gets to vote and inherits the last 2 1/2 years of Donahue's council term. And Hoffman, who now has two losses in a row following has January 2016 defeat by Lisa Green-Douglass in the county supervisor special election, can challenge Donahue again in November, without giving up his council seat which has two years left.

But Madsen wasn't a big winner - in the splintered seven candidate field, she won just 29%. In fact, no candidate for council topped 40% in any precinct, so geographic patterns are hard to spot. This would have been a great test case for second and third choice voting. It would also be interesting to see a runoff between Hoffman and Donahue (who was also a sub-50% winner, with Hoffman second and Pollock a distant third), and between Madsen and runner-up Kuhl.

Kuhl ranks as the night's biggest loser. Like Hoffman, he has now lost two in a row. But Hoffman's timing meant he kept his seat, while Kuhl resigned his council seat, was tossed out as mayor in just months, and now has failed at a comeback.

One good thing about a big field of candidates, though, is it boosts turnout to have ten sets of families and friends out voting. Turnout stands at 1016, agonizingly close to the 1031 record set in the controversial 2005 North Liberty election that Dave Franker won as a last-second write-in candidate.  Theoretically, that record could still fall if 16 of our 28 un-returned absentees come back. But that's unlikely (they had to be postmarked Monday, all were mailed to local addresses, and most local mail isn't postmarked anymore) and to my trained eye, those look like the kind where people sign the request form to make the doorknocker go away.

I'm saddened by one thing, though: A Donahue loss would have made for great trivia, as Hoffman or Pollock would have been North Liberty's FIFTH mayor in the term Tom Salm originally won in November 2013. Four is remarkable enough, but five would have been epic.

And if this wasn't enough fun, we get to do it all over again in Solon next month for a city council term of just five months.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Voter Statistics vs. Irrational numbers

You know, I have had a bad enough week of people with an agenda,  who don't understand my job, telling me how to do my job and accusing me of doing a bad job. Especially when it's a part of my job I'm especially proud of and good at.

And this time, it's not even the Iowa Legislature or Paul Pate that's on my case.

Right wing think tank Judicial Watch drops some version of this stink bomb every couple of years:
Judicial Watch today announced it has sent notice-of-violation letters threatening to sue 11 states having counties in which the number of registered voters exceeds the number of voting-age citizens, as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2015 American Community Survey. According to the letters, this is “strong circumstantial evidence that these … counties are not conducting reasonable voter registration record maintenance as mandated under the [National Voter Registration Act] NVRA.”  Both the NVRA and the federal Help America Vote Act require states to take reasonable steps to maintain accurate voting rolls...

Based on its review of Election Assistance Commission (EAC) data, and more recent U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey and the states’ voter registration records, Judicial Watch found the following counties have more total registered voters than the citizen voting age (18) population...
Iowa: Scott, Johnson
In its notice-of-violation letters, Judicial Watch warns that the failure to maintain accurate, up-to-date voter registration lists “required by federal law and by the expectations of [state] citizens” will “undermine public confidence in the electoral process.”
Umm... as I'll demonstrate, the people undermining public confidence in elections would be Judicial Watch, not the Scott and Johnson County auditors.

Funny how the two counties they target Just So Happen to have two Democratic auditors, Scott's Roxana Moritz and my own boss Travis Weipert, who are looking at challenging Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate.

UPDATE: As much as I hate to give Pate credit for anything, especially this week, his office called Travis this afternoon and offered their support. A press release was reportedly in the works. THAT'S how wrong these Judicial Watch clowns are.
“Dirty election rolls can mean dirty elections,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.  “These 11 states face possible Judicial Watch lawsuits unless they follow the law and take reasonable steps to clean up their voting rolls of dead, moved, and non-citizen voters.”
Judicial Watch asked the states to “conduct or implement a systematic, uniform, nondiscriminatory program to remove from the list of eligible voters the names of persons who have become ineligible to vote by reason of a change of residence, death or a disqualifying criminal conviction.”  The states are also asked to remove from voter registration lists “noncitizens who have registered to vote unlawfully.”
Once again, I'm going to have to re-write the post that patiently explains just exactly how I do that.

The way Judicial Watch is coming up with their dodgy numbers is by counting total registration, a mistake often repeated by campaign staffers and the press. A more accurate total is the number of Active status voters. And to understand Active status I need to explain Inactive status.

Everybody, everybody, everybody misunderstands what an Inactive status voter is. Campaign staffers and press assume that it's what's called in staffer speak a "weak voting D" or a presidential election only voter.

Inactive status really means "preliminary step to cancellation." It means that we've had mail returned to our office as undeliverable. Hit it, Elvis:

Voter registration is not like a driver's license that you have to renew or else it expires. It's considered permanent, until and unless you move.

Since Motor Voter took effect in 1995, no one gets canceled just for not voting. It all depends on the mail. The intent is to make it really, really, REALLY hard to cancel your registration without you knowing about it - an intent Judicial Watch does not seem to support.

I have spent most of this week processing one of our most valuable mailings, the Four Year No Activity mailing. Before Motor Voter we flat out canceled you after four years. Now we can just send you a friendly reminder card.

If the card from this mailing, or several other mailings that are strictly limited and spelled out by law, comes back as undeliverable, we can inactivate the voter. But we still have to wait through two more general elections before we can completely cancel them. That means the bins of mail I got back this week don't get totally cancelled until 2021.

I'm the person who does most of the dealing with this. As anyone who knows me politically or professionally knows, I'm obsessive about having the best and cleanest lists possible - a real challenge in a college town, and one of the few ways that my being Aspergery (that's not a flip anti-autistic remark, it's an actual diagnosis) about lists is a marketable job skill.

Judicial Watch's accusations don't even make political sense. An inaccurate ("dirty," they called it) voter file is actually a political negative, not a positive, because every bad name and number is a wasted door knocked or disconnected call made. And every address not updated in advance is a person who has to wait longer in line - and so do all the people behind them in line. If you want to help people vote, you want an accurate list.

Before the 4 Year No Activity mailing went out I contact all the major players - the dorms, the interfraternity council, and the post office - to let them all know These Cards Are Really Important and that we needed to get as many as possible Elvised back to us. They're used to me by now and their cooperation was wonderful again this year.

Last year I finally caught the 46 year old woman who was still registered in her college sorority house and last voted in 1992. (Someone always asks; it's not the house mom.) She's Inactive, but I have to wait till 2019 to completely cancel her.

So technically, she is a registered voter here. That means Judicial Watch is counting 46 Year Old Delta Delta Delta against our census totals and accusing my boss, my co-workers, and me of Fraud!, even though I spent close to a decade chasing this particular person down.

Forgive me if I take that a little personally.

I had one voter this morning who registered when she turned 18 in 1999 and NEVER voted here. The post office kept delivering her mail to her parents' home until this year - usually when it's been that long, it  means the parents have moved to a new home too. I was finally able to inactivate her - but I can't cancel her till 2021 - 22 years after she registered.

Again - Judicial Watch calls that "fraud."

Since people think I only work one day every four years, here's what we've been doing since the presidential election, and how our statistics compare to Judicial Watch's irrational numbers:

As of the time I went to lunch Wednesday Johnson County had 92,284 active status voters. That’s well below the 2015 estimated 115,112 census population aged 18 and older.

We also have 13,703 voters on Inactive status, waiting another two or four years to get cancelled. We KNOW most of these voters have moved away but it is literally against the law for us to fully cancel them yet.

Perhaps Judicial Watch thinks we should break the law.

We can only completely cancel voters sooner if we get direct notice from another jurisdiction, documentation signed by the voter themselves (NOT by Mom And Dad, who always seem more concerned that the voter themselves), or notice of a voter’s death. And as I so often note, literally the first thing I do at work every day is check the obituaries.

Another 474 voters are on Pending or Incomplete status, meaning they left required information off their forms or their ID numbers did not verify. That’s a grand total of 106,461 – still well below the Census estimate.

We've canceled 8082 voters since the first of the year. Only by adding that into the 106,461 do we get close to the 115,112 voting age census population - and only if you grab the numbers deliberately at the absolute peak to push your agenda.

Most of those cancellations - 7075 - were in January when we cancelled people who were inactivated in 2013 and 2014. We sent final letters to every one, and every single one came back undeliverable.

We also more moved more than 2700 voters from Active to Inactive status in January based on the annual National Change Of Address (NCOA) update from the post office. These voters cannot be canceled until after the 2020 election. And every person we inactivate gets send Yet Another Card Just To Be Sure; occasionally we hear back from someone who has moved or has postal problems.

I get voters who send back the NCOA card, check the box saying they moved away, and send it back... but forget to sign. I can't cancel them. Fortunately I have drafted a letter they they can just sign and send back in a postage paid envelope. This gets almost a 100% response rate.

Between all our list maintenance activity, our active registration, the number that really matters, is down by 4038 since January. That's almost exactly the number of election day registrations we got on November 8. (We got another 1000 from early voters in the week before election day ,after the pre-registration deadline.)

Only by grabbing our numbers at their absolute peak, and presenting them in a deliberately misleading way, is Judicial Watch able to argue that we have "too many" voters and try to make us look "dirty" and push their agenda of making it harder to vote.

Yeah. I take that personally.

At the Johnson County Auditor's Office, we think our job is to HELP people vote. That's why I've devoted a 20 year career to this. And it's only because we are so good at helping people vote that we're able to have such high active registration numbers that, though misleading counting of our inactive voters, we approach the census estimates.

It's a remarkable achievement in a town full of the youngest and least likely voters. And it's a record Travis and I and my co-workers want to extend into the ugly new voter ID era.  So it's going to be harder to vote? OK, well we'll just work harder then.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Paul Pate Has No Elvis In Him: Why Election Day Registrations REALLY Get Returned

Once again, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is politicizing the routine business of election management to push his agenda. The Huffington Post reports:
In an effort to highlight voter irregularities and push for stricter voting laws, Iowa’s top election official pushed statistics on alleged voter fraud that even a member of his own staff privately suggested were misleading, emails obtained by the Huffington Post reveal...

To substantiate his argument, Pate’s office drafted a statement for a reporter from the Iowa Gazette, noting that in Iowa it appeared 41 felons had cast ballots and that more than 200 election day voter registrations, or EDRs, had bounced back.
I'm assuming here that we mean the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I can't find the article that came out of this (I'll keep looking) but the timing in early January is right around the roll out of Pate's "Election Integrity" (sic) voter ID bill. The bill has passed both the House and Senate in different language; the House is expected to consider the Senate's amendments this week.

HuffPo continues, quoting Pate:
We need to release info and these stats are public already. When an auditor turns them over to the county attorney or sheriff for action that pretty much makes it public. Am I missing something?,” he wrote in an email.
But releasing the statistics drew an objection from Carol Olson, Pate’s deputy secretary of state for elections, who suggested they were misleading...

“I’m also really reluctant to say that 207 EDR’s from 15 counties bounced back. In the context of a discussion on election fraud, it sounds like we are suggesting that “bounce backs” are fraud or likely to be fraud,” she wrote... “The vast majority of these ‘bounce-backs’ are sloppy addresses from voters in too much of a hurry when they register at the polls. That’s a real reason to discourage EDR and a real reason to have pollbooks, but it’s not an indicator of illegal activity.
Along with the timing, the number and the emphasis are interesting here, because the biggest totals of these "bounce-backs" came in Johnson County. (Full disclosure: This was all long before my boss, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert, started looking at challenging Pate next year. In fact, if I can presume to speak on his behalf, crap like this is WHY Travis is looking at it.)

I may be a partisan blogger - thanks for reading, Paul! - but I'm also pretty good at my job, so it's time for another post about the micro-details of my work.

You know of course that everyone who registers or makes a change gets a new voter card. Johnson County mailed over 8000 cards on November 17 reflecting changes made on or just before election day.

If you're a regular reader you know that when those are returned as undeliverable by the post office, the voter gets put on "Inactive" status. These are what Pate and Olson are calling "bounce-backs."

In Johnson County we call them something else.

There's an added step with EDR voters. Rather than immediately inactivating these voters, we first send them a Mildly Scary Letter with a form. It's not till the letter also gets Elvised back to us that we make them inactive, and then we pass the list along to the county attorney.

I sent 97 of those letters out on December 15. That sounds like a lot compared to the 15-county total of 207 cited by Pate. But it's just 1.86% of the 5212 EDRs we processed in Johnson County. That's a share comparable to, or even better, than the routine registrations we get during the peak of election season - because EDR voters are already required to show proof of address.

The fact that the biggest numbers came from the most Democratic county in the state is a big part of why Pate wants to play this up. It might sound fishy to people who don't live in a college town.

Homeowners who've had the same address 20 years don't have as much trouble getting their mail - remember, the whole subtext of the voter ID debate is about calling universal suffrage itself into question. More than a few locals think the students shouldn't be allowed to vote here anyway, even though the Supreme Court settled that in the `70s. There's also a lot of belief in the myth of "busloads of voters from Chicago," with all the associated ugly racial implications and the association of that city's name with "fraud."

Four months later here's where we stand with those 97 voters:

34 are on Active status. This means the Mildly Scary Letter got through. Either they responded to the letter and made any needed corrections, or they simply were having mail delivery problems when the cards went out. We routinely see people who can't get a card delivered to save their lives, but letters get through. Go figure.

Five are no longer registered in the county. This could mean they moved or re-registered immediately post-election. Students often, intentionally or not, re-register immediately back in their parents' counties. "Where do I live" is a permanent issue of confusion for students. They're used to putting both addresses on everything, but election law generally assumes you live in one place.

58, just 1.1% of the 5212 Johnson County EDRs, are on Inactive status. This likely means the letter also got Elvised at which point I inactivated them.

So these are the fraudsters, right? Not exactly. These problems came almost entirely from two kinds of places.

Most were from the large downtown student apartment complexes, and they came back for one overwhelming reason: Missing apartment numbers.

If you're a letter carrier with a giant complex like the Cornerstone Apartments or Hawks Ridge on your route, where almost every tenant moves every August, where names on mailboxes are iffy at best, you're not going to spend way more time than you have trying to figure out which apartment this card goes to. You're gonna Elvis it back. (The post office calls them "Nixies.") And then all we can do is send another piece of mail to the same bad address. (EDR voters tend to be in a hurry, so we don't get a lot of phone numbers or email addresses from them for follow-up.)

The next biggest chunk comes from the complete opposite kind of place: the small towns of Johnson County. They come back because people leave off their post office boxes.

Some towns are very friendly about delivering mail. I used to get mail addressed just to "John Deeth, Lone Tree IA." Lone Tree has since changes postmasters, and they are now picky about PO boxes.

The worst by far is Tiffin. There seems to be no clear pattern to which parts of the fast growing town have street delivery and which have boxes. and the post office is absolutely uncooperative.

I'm not saying this isn't a problem. We can always do a better job. But the solutions to that problem don't require changes in the law. In the post-Florida era, legal changes have dramatically increased the workload on poll workers. Tasks are more numerous and more complicated, and all important. These issues with apartments and mailing addresses are just one more detail in an incredibly busy day.

But that's a training issue. it's not a problem best solved by implying that postal problems are fraud, and using that as an excuse to make voting more difficult.

When Paul Pate returned to office, with less than 50% of the vote in a three way race, I was disappointed because I had supported Brad Anderson. But I was relieved that with his past experience he would at least be better than Matt Schultz, who spent his whole term looking for nonexistent fraud and running a failed campaign for Congress.

At least with Schultz you knew what you were getting. But Pate has been a different story the second time around, pretending to be "responsive" to the needs of auditors, but toeing the party line in the end and twisting the job to a partisan agenda. Here, Pate has taken a very minor technical detail and over his staff's objection used it as "evidence" of "fraud,"

All this after bragging in October that Iowa had the best run elections anywhere. If there was any doubt before, this proves that Paul Pate has no Elvis in him.