Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Good Signs In Solon With Whitehead Win

It's easy to read too much into a one precinct small town election for low stakes - just a seven month term on the Solon city council.

Yet Lauren Whitehead's strong (64-36%) win over the briefly appointed incumbent, Dale Snipes, is interesting and positive on multiple levels.

Solon has the traditional core of the small town it long was, with an outer layer of a fast growing exurb full of commuters. Northeast Johnson County, the piece that's in Republican Bobby Kaufmann's House district, was ancestrally Democratic but has been trending red in recent years. The city of Solon slipped from 60.6% Obama in 2012 to a less than majority win of 49.3% for Hillary Clinton last fall. When the third parties are factored in, it was an 17 point swing to the GOP - about normal for small town Iowa as a whole, but in counter-trending Johnson County, it was a weak spot.

So a Democratic win on challenging ground is good - and it's fair to call it a "Democratic win." Whitehead was very active in the Clinton campaign, both in the caucuses and in the fall, and her high profile party activism was a sharp contrast to Snipes, who had a typical small town city council non-"political" image.

Snipes had been elected to the council before in a low-profile race like that, the uncontested 2015 election, then resigned mid-term when his work schedule changed. When it changed back, and when another council member resigned, Snipes was appointed back.

Solon has had a series of resignations and appointments, for a wide variety of reasons - a mayor moving up to city manager, a council member moving outside the city limits, a couple others. Because the 2015 election was uncontested, the signature bar to force Tuesday's election was extremely low. Snipes' appointment would only have lasted five months, but with the bar low, folks decided that one more appointment was one too many.

(The national mood is such that people want to vote on stuff - though a recent appointment following a double resignation from the Oxford city council is now past the petition deadline and there won't be a special election there.)

Barring some kind of divisive issue, small town campaigns are typically who-you-know matters, and Snipes seemed to stick to that traditional low profile. Whitehead approached the small town campaign like a modern campaign - social media presence, targeted door knocking, absentee requests, and bullet point issues focused on openness and accessibility.

So the question Tuesday was whether the old ways would work again, or whether Solon was changing and a Campaign campaign would work - and the answer was resounding. Turnout wasn't a record, but the benchmark was artificially high because there was a large bond issue on the ballot in record year 2011. So 14.6% for an off-cycle date (the day after a holiday) for a seven month term is solid, and near the high range for a Solon election.

Also noteworthy: Over the last 25 years, there's been a pattern in Johnson County. When one side forces a special election with a petition, that side loses, the cost of the election becomes an issue, and the appointee wins. Whitehead's win marks only the second time that an appointee was defeated in the special election - the other was in chronically divided University Heights in January 2011.

Whitehead can't rest on the win, since filing for the full term in the fall is less than four months away. But she goes into that election as a strong winner.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Punker Looks At 40: The Legacy of "God Save The Queen"

Lèse-majesté: the crime of violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state.

Next week will be clogged with tributes to the 50th anniversary to "rock's greatest record," the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.

But an equally important milestone passes tomorrow: the 40th anniversary of the most controversial, dangerous and gloriously offensive record ever made.

Just a year earlier, Queen - the Freddie Mercury band, not Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor - had concluded their masterpiece album, A Night At The Opera, with an electric but sincere version of "God Save The Queen," just after the final gong of "Bohemian Rhapsody" faded. They closed the show with it for years. Rock royalty, indeed.

The Sex Pistols were rebelling as much against bands like Queen as they were against royalty. But the specific approach, the lese majeste of "God Save The Queen," was the most singular moment of the rebellion.

There's no way a mere American, receiving Queen the band, Queen the monarch, and the Sex Pistols all as transatlantic translation, can truly understand how obscene this perversion of the national anthem sounded in 1977 Britain. There's no way to explain the patriotic frenzy of the Royal Jubilee,  (Elizabeth II's 25th anniversary on the throne, and who would have thought SHE would still be around 40 years later). The Bicentennial kind of gets at it - but it would be like the Bicentennial with a living George Washington, or a descendant receiving Kennedy-style adulation, who was seen as the embodiment of the nation itself.

Even before you played the record - because it was most certainly NOT on the radio, so you had to buy it on reputation only, and that's IF you were lucky enough to find a store that would sell it - the obscenity began, with Her Majesty's face defaced by lettering that was then associated with ransom notes but now, precisely because of this record, is seen as "punk rock."

And as the record plays the nation that Hitler had bombed barely 30 years earlier, still full of millions of war veterans, was called "fascist." Elizabeth is lyrically, literally, stripped of her humanity - "she ain't no human being." The very notion of morality itself is rejected - "when there's no future, how can there be sin?"

The only American analogy I can come up with - and this is after decades of consideration - is Henrdix's  Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, another deconstructed version of a national anthem. And you would have to package it with a burning flag on the cover.

But there were a lot more hippies and Vietnam War opponents in August 1969 than there were first generation punk rockers in May 1977. And while the 1960s preached peace and love, "God Save the Queen" was pure apocalyptic nihilism, ending with "no future for you."

"You don't write 'God Save The Queen' because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you're fed up with them being mistreated"- Johnny Rotten

The Pistols' recorded legacy is incredibly brief: less than 20 completed tracks with the core lineup of Johnny Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, and drummer Paul Cook, most of which are on the one true album. Sid Vicious, of course, never really played; the bass parts are either by Jones or by original bassist Glen Matlock.

The legend is that simplicity and Do It Yourself were the punk ethos - but that was the bands the Pistols inspired. Their own record is dense and layered and highly produced. Because it was nearly impossible for the band to play live without violence, Jones had little else to do and spent endless hours in the studio, overdubbing and overdubbing layers of guitar, which is why no other guitars sound like the guitars on Never Mind The Bollocks. Those guitars, and Rotten's snarl and sneer, are the defining sounds of the band.

On the surface, taken just as lyrics, other individual songs are more offensive than "God Save The Queen," especially the abortion rant "Bodies" ("fuck this and fuck that/fuck it all you fucked up, fucking brat"), as is the never properly recorded "Belsen Was A Gas," which comes off more as a failed shock joke.

But it's the four singles, all included on Never Mind The Bollocks, that are the core of the legend.

"Pretty Vacant" is a great rocker, but the lyric is less shocking, other than Rotten's deliberate pronunciation of "vacant" as "va-CUNT." And "Holidays in the Sun" is a desperate goodbye, and thus has a greater humanity to it. The critics tend to look back on the first single, "Anarchy In The UK," as the masterpiece, and as it was first it may have broken more barriers. "I wanna destroy," indeed, though later punks like my hero Joe Strummer of the Clash had plans on how the rubble should be rebuilt.

But bile as bitter as "God Save The Queen" could never be duplicated, and rage this intense was unsustainable. The band self-destructed only months later. The one song more than any other, the one track that was not just part of rock history but of history itself, is "God Save The Queen."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reclaiming "Progressive"

I've been discussing and/or feuding in various online groups that call themselves "progressive." In the ongoing circular firing squad that the Democratic Party always becomes when we are out of power, one of the key bridgeheads up for capture is the word "progressive."

To be honest, I'm not happy that the Iowa Democratic Party created a "Progressive Caucus." The implication is that somehow everyone else is not "progressive," and that there's no other place in the party for "progressives." It's also an impossible term to define - "progressive" is whoever calls themselves that, and everyone is going to define it differently.

For some people it's about insurance.

In the context of internal Democratic discussion in mid-2017, "Progressive" is de facto defined as "Bernie." So I'm viewed with suspicion because in the end I decided for Hillary, as if I and all of the millions more people who voted for her than voted for Bernie somehow made that decision because we love stock brokers and investment bankers. She called herself "a progressive who gets things done," but that seems to have little resonance any more.
Rather than opting out, I'm hanging in there - trying to listen but correcting misconceptions, and claiming my share of that valuable word progressive.

At the risk of "unity," which the left-left is calling a false value anyway, I'm going to for the first time in a long time explain why I chose Hillary over Bernie. 

It may be blasphemy to say so, but politics is about more than positions and platforms. It's about style and skill sets as well as substance.  My problem is not with trying to move the Democrats leftward - I've been in that fight for 25 years. I made my choice for Hillary because I believed she could do the job and he couldn't. 

Not that inability to do the job matters.
Specifically: Sanders was visibly uncomfortable with any subject other than macroeconomics, especially foreign policy.  He had little to say about foreign policy because he knew that his actual foreign policy, pacifist isolationism, was not going to sell.  
Sanders also had no political plan for getting his ideas through a hostile Congress, other than, to paraphrase, the ЯevolutioN will sweep all opposition away in its wake - and even the biggest tidal wave can't overcome bad district maps.
And this wasn't a deciding factor, but it didn't help: the "revolution" rhetoric was nails on a chalkboard to me. Maybe that's because it sounded like me when I was a 25 years old "socialist" in grad school, before I dropped out and made my commitment to electoral politics.

The rhetorical irony of the Sanders campaign is that "progressives" and "socialists" weren't historically allies. "Progressive" is of course a term with century old roots. We had a whole Progressive Era led by Teddy Roosevelt - and the mis-labeled, white supremacist, anti-leftist Woodrow Wilson. Progressives were reformers, not revolutionaries, and in the 1910s, before World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, progressives were usually against, not with, the Socialists.

And their three Milwaukee mayors.

The New Deal era was also reformist rather than revolutionary, amid real fear that the Great Depression would spark revolution.  

Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moosers were the first of three Progressive Parties. There was also Fighting Bob LaFollette's 1924 party, which was a Wisconsin institution for a couple decades (in that era, progressives were Republicans, not Democrats).

Finally there was Iowa's own Henry Wallace and his short-lived 1948 party. It suffered from hostile takeover by actual Communists,which finally gets my circling around to my point.

For a whole bunch of historic reasons, Marxist class-struggle rhetoric never truly took root in America. It's understood in academic islands, like the one I live in, but it's not part of our political vernacular.

To choose a deliberatively provocative term, the rhetoric of revolution is un-"American." Or since I'm sure to be called a red-baiter for that, non-American. Not anti-American in the McCarthyism sense, but alien to the American political culture, and thus limited in ability to persuade. If you can't persuade, you can't win. I'm not saying that's fair, I'm saying that's a reality. "Revolution" is not going to take back West Virginia.

That's the barrier Bernie Sanders faced as he tried to take over the Democratic Party from outside with a class-based rhetoric explicitly labeled as "socialist." It had a high hipster factor, but the appeal to the actual proletariat was limited. (I attribute Sanders' primary wins in Appalachia less to class struggle and more to I Hate That Bitch. Those four words sum up the whole election - and sadly, certain parts of the left are just as bad as the right.)

Yesterday a bunch of potential 2020ers spoke at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference, and a few half-noticed tweets from Elizabeth Warren's speech encapsulated why I always found her persona and rhetorical style far more appealing than Sanders.

Notice how Warren's rhetoric has deeper roots in the American tradition. Teddy Roosevelt examples are much more relevant to real word American voters, as opposed to artificially grafting "ЯevolutioN" and "socialism" onto a political culture where those concepts are alien.

25 year old me - I actually wrote a paper on Sanders in grad school in 1990 - can't believe I'm saying this.
"Nevertheless she persisted" has become such a meme that it's not even always associated with Warren anymore, and the origin story is almost lost: it was when she was reprimanded for reading the Coretta Scott King's letter about Jeff Session on the Senate floor.  The civil rights era in general and MLK and Coretta specifically are authentically and iconically American, at least to half the country, in a way that "revolution" is not. It also acknowledges that African Americans and women, not the white working class, are the true base of the post-1960s Democratic Party.

And while Sanders attempts to invoke the civil rights era, it's invariably just a stepping stone to what he really wants to talk about, macroeconomics. 

Warren and Sanders, and to a 95% extent Hillary Clinton, have the same ideas, and we're all (except for my Republican friends) on the same team here. And I absolutely welcome the new people Sanders has brought to activism in general, especially the ones who want to tough it out in the party trenches.
(Pro tip: Activism in a political party is not the best kind of activism for everyone. If you can't in the end come together and back the winner, another kind of activism may be a better fit and I respect that. What I don't respect is having it both ways and waving Jill Stein signs at the Democratic convention.)
But the rhetorical style that thrills some is a turnoff for others. For every X number of 20somethings attracted by "revolution" and "socialism," there are Y voters turned off by the explicit old left rhetorical style. I understand X - because that was 25 year old me. But aren't we all embarrassed by our younger selves? So I'm part of Y.
And I contend that Y > X.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Election Law Changes Part 4: Stuff That Didn’t Happen

So as you’ve seen the past three days, the election law news from the Iowa legislative session is mostly bad. However, there were a few negative items that got some publicity yet didn’t pass.

The biggest surprise to me was that there was no attempt to ban satellite voting, which I was absolutely certain would happen. Satellite sites are mostly popular in urban Democratic counties, and they only really work in locations that have high population density and foot traffic, so they seemed like a prime target. But the only bill affecting satellites was a brief attempt at a minor restriction on sites in the very smallest city elections.

There was also no serious attempt to end election day registration. A bill was introduced by a few of the farthest right House Republicans but it was never taken up. Fact is, as in every state that allows it, election day registration became very popular immediately. The Krazy Kaucus also introduced a few other far-right fantasies: term limits, a US constitutional convention, and electing the members of the committee that nominates judicial finalists.

In the back and forth between the House and Senate over HF516, an amendment to close the polls at 8 PM, rather than 9 PM, for primary and general elections was dropped – a fact Terry Branstad bemoaned after the bill’s passage.

Cutting the early voting window to 29 days is bad enough. But at one point Senator Rick Bertrand introduced a bill that would have set the first day to vote early at just 15 days before the election.

Brad Zaun’s sore loser bill to abolish party conventions for primaries where no one tops 35 percent, and instead hold an August runoff, passed the Senate unanimously, but the House never took it up. That’s more consideration than Rep. Andy McKean got with a plan to move the primary to September, which would have caused federal problems. Overseas ballots have to be ready 45 days out, and other states that traditionally had September primaries (including New York and Wisconsin) have had to move them early to comply with that federal law.

One bill, aimed straight at Johnson County, would have required the state’s biggest counties to elect supervisors by district. I’ve elaborated much on that in the past. There was also a proposal to let rural townships secede from the largest counties (with the bar once again set right at Johnson County’s 130,000 census total) and join a neighboring county, and a truly bizarre Jarad Klein bill that would have let rural voters cast ballots in city elections. There were a couple of proposals to elect county officials on a non-partisan basis, which died quietly.

A perennial auditor item never came up: setting a hard and fast date deadline for returning absentee ballots. Current law requires a postmark the day before an election, but most local mail is no longer postmarked. Also getting no traction: efforts to allow mail-only elections in the smallest cities. This would save a lot of work for auditors and significant tax money for the small cities, but the concern seems to be setting a precedent for all-vote-by-mail. That would be too popular and make voting too easy, wouldn’t it?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Election Law Changes Part 3: Changes for Auditors and Campaign Staffers

In part one and two we looked first at the ID provisions, then at cuts in early voting, and other election law changes that will affect average voters. Today we’ll look at items that, while certainly of public interest, mostly affect auditor’s offices and campaign staffers.

The big item for auditors will be the post-election audits. Random precincts in random counties will have to do a hand count of president or governor.

I understand that a lot of people find voting equipment very interesting. I’m not one of them. I don’t have a problem on principle with post-election audits, though I find equipment paranoia in general very silly. But there are a couple problems with the bill as passed.

The original bill had a reasonable audit timeline in February. That wasn’t good enough for the equipment geeks, whose real agenda is hand counting all ballots. After the incident in Dallas County, which broke right when the bill was progressing, there was probably no hope for an auditor-friendly deadline. The thing is, Dallas County was NOT a problem of equipment; it was a problem of people failing to report totals to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State failing to catch it. (It was also a failure of the campaign staffs, political activists, and press for failing to catch it.)

So instead the audit deadline is a VERY tight 21 days. One of which is Veteran’s Day so you either lose a day of work or you lose a holiday. There is still a LOT of post-election data and maintenance and physical cleanup going on three weeks post-election. And I know my rest and physical comfort is a low priority – and I didn’t choose this career without looking on it as service to the public. But three weeks post-election us grunts are still catching up on sleep and laundry and maybe hoping to take a long delayed day off to stretch the Thanksgiving break.

And I’m sorry not sorry, but machines count better than people. They don’t get distracted. They don’t get tired – and poll workers less than three weeks after a general election are tired. Inevitably there will be discrepancies, and those discrepancies will be because the people, not the machines, made mistakes. And just as inevitably people will get their facts wrong and scream “fraud!”

I also don’t quite trust the “random” selection of counties and precincts, and will bet a beret that the first precinct audited will be the Johnson County absentee board. Yes, the whole absentee vote of a county is considered a “precinct” under this section, so we could be hand-counting tens of thousands of ballots.

Also interesting: the bill specifies that audit observers are representatives of the “two largest” parties – one more way that the Libertarians, despite finally succeeding after decades of effort in getting “full” party status last year, are still somehow less than fully equal.

At a Friday training for auditors and staffers, there was a lot of concern and confusion from auditors about audits and the tight timeline. "Have you thought about how to explain this to the public?" asked Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. "The public has been screaming for audits," deputy Secretary of State Carol Olson asserted. "Not in my experience," Miller replied.

As a minor benefit to auditors, the law adds a fourth week to the previous three weeks either side of a general election in which other special elections are not allowed.  But those kinds of votes were rare and usually small anyway. The nightmare scenario of a major school bond a month after a presidential election is barred anyway under HF566 which combines city and school elections and also limits the days those governments can have special elections. (Technically, this bill is not yet signed, but there's no reason to expect a veto.)

There are also various paperwork and certification requirements which seem relatively minor:
49.128 Commissioner filings and notifications.
1. No later than twenty days following a general election, the commissioner shall place on file in the commissioner’s office a certification that the county met the following requirements at the general election:
a. The testing of voting equipment was performed, as required under section 52.35.
b. The election personnel training course was conducted, as required under section 49.124.
c. Polling places met accessibility standards, as required under section 49.21.
d. The schedule of required publications was adhered to, as required under section 49.53.
e. The commissioner has complied with administrative rules adopted by the state commissioner under chapter 52, including having a written voting system security plan.
Most of this is documenting stuff we do anyway.

But the bill includes other demands on counties and infringements on local authority that seem designed to boost the “fraud” numbers and thus provide fuel for the next, even tougher version of vote suppression.

For starters, Paul Pate can go on a fishing expedition through local files:
“The state commissioner may, at the state commissioner’s discretion, examine the records of a commissioner to evaluate complaints and to ensure compliance with the provisions of chapters 39 through 53. The state commissioner shall adopt rules pursuant to chapter 17A to require a commissioner to provide written explanations related…”

Gee, what counties will he look at first?

Auditors and county attorneys already look at individual cases and determine what’s a legitimate problem. But this allows a Secretary of State to come in, fling poo all over the place, and leave the locals behind to clean up. As Nixon noted, the retraction never gets as much attention as the original charge.

County attorneys are also now required to report back to the secretary of state on Election Day registrations whose follow-up mail is returned as undeliverable. This is to boost the “fraud” numbers,  and seems to be aimed straight at Johnson County.

At present, auditors simply send a letter and make the voters inactive. These so called “bounce-backs” (we call them something else) caused controversy when Pate’s own staff recommended against using his puffed-up statistics. The problems are almost always primarily postal. The issue isn’t “fraud,” it’s merely missing apartment numbers and post office boxes.

There’s also an earlier deadline for mailing out confirmation notices to EDR voters. The old deadline was 45 days, now it’s 21. In Johnson County, we had more than 5000 EDRs in 2016, probably more than any other county, and had all those cards mailed within two weeks. So it should be do-able, though it might be hard if we also got hit with an audit of our absentee board - one of the concerns auditors expressed Friday

There’s a few requirements on timelines and deadlines for campaign staffers. None of them are as draconian “courier” law that was in effect through the 2004 and 2006 cycles, but they seem designed to produce minor insignificant slip-ups that can be blown out of all proportion. I don’t even see the point of making an absentee request received AFTER the request deadline a Rush To The Auditor thing.

More substantively, registration forms must now get turned in within a week, or within 24 hours if it’s within three days of the pre-registration deadline. For absentee requests, the law stays the same, 72 hours. The holiday weekend problem didn’t get fixed: If a staffer gets a request Friday night of a three day weekend, it’s more than 72 hours before the auditor’s office will be open to accept it.

That’s pretty much everything that happened with election law this session. In tomorrow’s conclusion, which is unfortunately the shortest part, we’ll see what thank God did NOT happen.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Election Law Changes Part 2: Cuts to Early Voting and More Changes

Yesterday I reviewed the most publicized part of HF516, the voter ID provisions. But there was a lot more to the bill, and there were other election bills.

Other than ID, the items that most directly affect voters are changes to the absentee request and early voting period.

Any Iowa ballot cast other than at a polling place on election day is technically considered an “absentee” ballot. That includes mailed ballots, votes at the office, satellite voting, and teams that visit nursing homes and hospitals. I’ll be using the terms “mailed ballot” and “in person early ballot” for clarity.

Military and overseas voters are covered by the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), so these restrictions don’t apply to them.

For many years, the first day to legally request a mailed ballot was 70 days before an election – late August in general elections. Beginning in 2004, the first day deadline was completely eliminated. I’ve been sitting on two requests for this fall’s school election for over a year, and we also have some for next June's primary.

We started to have problems because of this change right away in 2004. Campaigns were passing out requests at the January caucuses and knocking doors way too early. Many voters moved before the ballots were mailed in late September, which led to a lot of undeliverable mail and a lot of challenged ballots.

So, as the guy who personally removed all the absentee request forms from the Johnson County caucus packets, I’m not shedding any tears that as of January 1, 2018, the first day to request a ballot is 120 days before an election (early July in general elections). In fact, I would have liked August 1, the day every Iowa City lease turns over.

Also the best time for curb shopping.

This will delay door knocking for requests, and eliminate passing forms out at the caucuses, but it also eliminates the accompanying problems. The only extra work is, I have to mail the too-early form back to the voter.

True, 120 days is a restriction. But it’s not a major restriction on the average voter, as most of those early-early requests are campaign generated. Very few regular people who can hand in a request ten months ahead will be unable to hand one in five months ahead. And the people who are the farthest away, the UOCAVA voters, can make their requests at the first of the year.

On the back end, however, the new deadline is significantly more restrictive. Before each big election I say "I can fix almost any problem with enough time." Now voters have less time, and so do I.

Prior to 2004 there was NO final request deadline. You could bring in a request for someone the day before an election and we had to mail a ballot anywhere in the world. I actually saw it WORK once in 1998; the husband of a shut-in spouse did all the legwork except getting the ballot to the voter which had to be done by the post office. Given changes in mail delivery it probably wouldn’t work now… but it’s no longer allowed.

Starting in 2004 the deadline was the Friday before an election. Difficult to get returned in time, but not impossible.

Under the new law the deadline pushes back a week to coincide with the pre-registration deadline: 10 days before a general election, 11 days before all others. Again, this takes effect January 1. 2018.

Last fall in Johnson County we had about 660 requests in the final week before the election. 480 of those were returned on time and counted. So at least that many people would have to at least act earlier. These people fell into all sorts of categories: people who were suddenly out of town, shut-ins who had been too optimistic about their health recovering, and yes, some procrastinators.

That's the recurring theme in the mindset of those who passed these laws: well, then, you should have just been more responsible.

As if a citizen trying to exercise a fundamental right that people have literally died for in my lifetime is being anything but "responsible."

There’s also going to be less time to get the ballots back. Under the old law ballots for primary general elections had to be mailed out at least 40 days before the election, in late September. Auditors were allowed to mail ballots out earlier if they were ready, which sometimes meant day 42 or 43.

But with the new law, also effective the first of next year, ballots may not be sent out until 29 days out. Why 29? I think it’s because Day 29 is a Monday which gives Democrats two fewer weekends to call those voters and in staffer-speak "chase" their ballots.

The new 29 day law also applies to in-person early voting, which used to start 40 days out. That means seven fewer business days for voting. The excuse for that was that voters shouldn’t vote till after debates, but I’ve never been convinced that undecided voters actually watch debates. And the earliest early voters tend to be the partisans on both sides who won’t change their minds no matter what.

Now those people are forced to vote later, which puts them in the line with other voters who waited by choice. In Johnson County last year that was 3310 people in seven days of office voting and at one satellite site, about 12% of our whole in person early voting. Put another way: the early voting line just got 12% longer.

29 days will mean 28 days some years. If Election Day is November 6, 7, or as it was last year the 8th, Day 29 is the Columbus Day postal holiday and ballot's won't go out till Tuesday. (I prefer Aimee Mann's solo work myself.) Columbus Day is easy to forget because it’s the one cheesy government holiday I don’t get in my contract, yet somehow I always remember Columbus Day.

You gotta problem wit' Columbus Day?

The legislature used the later early voting start date as an excuse to push back some candidate filing deadlines.
81 days – federal/state dropout deadline for primary winners (was 89)
74 days – county dropout deadline (same)
73 days – federal/state filing deadline, nominate by convention deadline (was 81)
64 days – certification to auditors (was 69)
The argument was: since auditors have more time to get ballots ready, we should let candidates file later! And we can call it an expansion of voting rights!

But auditors don't have more time to get ballots ready. Under federal law, UOCAVA ballots have to be ready to mail 45 days before an election. The feds are very strict about this; many states that used to have September primaries like New York and Wisconsin had to move them because they were unable to get their November ballots prepped in time to meet the 45 day deadline.

Most overseas voters choose email delivery (almost all of them have to print it out and mail it back), but they do have the right to a printed ballot, and even to send the electronic document you still have to have the programming and testing done. So auditors have now been given less time, not more. The ballots will still be have to be programmed and ready 45 days out…

...and then they’ll sit for 16 days until we’re legally allowed to hand and mail them to voters. At which time the in-person early voters will get IDd just like the Election Day voters.

One of the most common questions I get about the ID law is, almost always worded exactly like this: “what about absentee ballots?” (In context, meaning “mailed.”) The answer is: Mailed ballots are a huge hole in any voter ID law. No one knows what happens outside the office.

Legislators tried to put a fig leaf on the issue. If you assume there’s a problem (which there isn’t) the obvious solution is to require a photocopy. That was a non-starter because, while young urban (read: Democratic) voters generally have access to printer-copiers at home, older rural (Republican) voters are less likely to, and the GOP early vote program relies almost entirely on mail.

There was a lot of debate about a Super Secret PIN number for absentee voters. In the end that was limited only to those people who got the Magic Cards. Other voters are expected to list their license number. (Nursing home voters are exempt.)

Here’s the loophole: If voters leave that number off, the law says, “the commissioner shall, by the best means available, obtain the additional necessary information.” I interpret that to mean I can look on the state voter system and see the number. So that makes it only kinda sorta mandatory… but voters and doorknockers will be told it’s MANDATORY mandatory.  

Update: That loophole got closed by administrative rule so now I'll be legally required to call you or, worse, send you a letter and cost you a few days, to get you to tell me a number that I am literally looking at on my screen.

That will produce delays and resistance at the door. “Oh, I don’t have my license, just leave it and I’ll do it later” which never really happens. The Republicans’ vote by mail program, which relies more on direct mail than doorknockers, will be impacted less.

In addition to the absentee cuts and the ID rules, HF516 also has other voting restrictions not directly related to IDs:
“If a person registers to vote under (the Election Day registration law) at a polling place that does not have access to an electronic poll book, the person shall be permitted to cast a provisional ballot.”
These voters were previously voting regular ballots. This doesn’t just punish them, with either an uncounted ballot or a post-election day trip to the auditor’s office with ID and proof of address.  It punishes everyone behind them in line, too, because provisional ballots Take. More. Time. (All of Johnson County's precincts have computers, but we're one of the few. Even other large urban counties have some precincts still using paper poll books.)

At least the rules on ID and the absentee changes are are spelled out. The language on signature verification is much fuzzier:
Upon being presented with a form of identification under this section, the precinct election official shall examine the identification. The precinct election official shall use the information on the identification card, including the  signature, to determine whether the person offering to vote 11 appears to be the person depicted on the identification card.  The voter’s signature shall generally be presumed to be valid.  If the identification provided does not appear to be the person  offering to vote under section 49.77, the precinct election official shall challenge the person offering to vote in the same manner provided for other challenges by sections 49.79 17 and 49.80.
Huh? Signature verification, then, is whatever the poll worker says it is. Most are good but a few might get carried away, and if that happens I suspect the scrutiny on people with the Magic Cards will be stricter. And it'll be stricter yet in some counties if your name is Mario or Abdullah.

At a Friday training for auditors and their staffs, deputy Secretary of State Carol Olson tried to downplay concerns that signature verification would be a major issue, except in cases where multiple requests had the same handwriting (for example, mom signing absentee requests for all the adult kids." 

She then said "Signature verification was something auditors asked for strongly." This was greeted by open laughter and multiple exclamations of "I didn't."

No matter how you’re voting, once you get that ballot something familiar will be missing.

People tend to have very strong feelings, both ways, about the straight ticket, but a third of all voters used that option. I’m not sure how eliminating straight ticket voting increases “integrity,” but it’s gone. Republicans clearly saw some advantage in dropping it, even though statistically straight ticket voters lined up very close to non-straight tickets. (That will be a separate post.) As a non-political, simply practical matter, eliminating the straight ticket will slow things down at the polls, as a third of the voters may be spending more time in the booth.

One other partisan item is a somewhat convoluted way of determining which party is listed first on the ballot. The Senate, spurred by Roby Smith’s obsession with this issue, initially passed a rotation scheme that was not technically possible for some major voting software to program.

Cooler heads prevailed, but in a weird way. In the final bill, ballot order in each county will be determined by the number of voters affiliated with each party who voted. (So if more registered Know Nothings voted than registered Bull Moosers, even if Teddy Roosevelt won the couny, the Know Nothings would be listed first.) Why that particular, obscure statistic was what they settled on, I have no idea. Top of the ballot votes is more straightforward and seems to make more sense. The important thing is that Roby Smith succeeded in taking that choice, one of the very few discretionary powers auditors had, away.

There may be more battles in the absentee board counting room. The old law allowed only one observer per party at a time. This now increases to five, which likely means more ballot challenges from Republicans and beefed up defense efforts from Democrats.

Another change for voters is a rewording, though not necessarily a clarification, of the ballot selfie law. The new wording states:
“Photographic devices and the display of voted ballots is prohibited if such use or display is for purposes prohibited under chapter 39A (the election misconduct code section), interferes with other voters, or interferes with the orderly operation of the polling place.”
This is summarized in materials sent from the Secretary of State to auditors as: "Cameras allowed unless used for misconduct; Also disallowed if interferes with voting." At Friday's training, "ballot selfies are allowed" was emphasized. The argument given was "court rulings have consistenly upheld" this right in other states. Yet I still think "misconduct and interference with voting" gives auditors lots of leeway.

I would have preferred to take on this fight directly and passed a straightforward “voted ballots may not be photographed.” Because if you CAN take a ballot selfie, someone can coerce you into it or pay you for it. (I'm sure glad I wasn't "allowed" to take a ballot selfie in the 2012 auditor primary.) There are many other restrictions on absolute free speech in the polling place.

In a related item, that was likely based on an incident in Linn County, “A voter voting an absentee ballot at the commissioner’s office shall not take or remove any ballot from the commissioner’s office.”  Previously this wording was only applied to satellite sites.

The only expansion of voting rights anywhere in any of the election bills this year is a change that brings the June primary in line with the caucuses: If you’ll be 18 by general Election Day you can vote in the primary. This will make caucus year a bit less confusing. But the voting right itself will be a big big deal to a very very small number of people. It would have helped our own Lisa Green-Douglass, whose triplets turned 18 the day AFTER the June 7 primary last year… but even without those three votes she won.

But a late amendment pushed this change from the 2018 primary back to 2020. And it sets up this  scenario for a person born on Columbus Day of a leap year:
  • February caucus: can “vote” (caucus are not elections!)
  • April special election: can’t vote
  • June primary: can vote
  • September special election: can’t vote
  • November general election: can vote
HF516 was not the only election bill. One big change for voters is that there’s one less election every two years. Under HF566, city and school elections are now combined into one election in November of odd years. The bill was unchanged after I wrote about it at length here. (Technically this isn't signed yet, but there's no reason to expect a veto.)

SF399, the so-called “cleanup” bill, expands nursing home voting provisions into “dementia-specific assisted living programs,” which I see as a good thing, and allows more days for teams to visit care centers. It also allows voters to petition for a special school board election, which brings schools in line with other elected office vacancies. Last year the Iowa City School Board wanted an election to fill a vacancy but under the old law they had to go through a charade of “failing to appoint.”

HF471 allows auditors to consolidate precincts in primary and general elections, a practice that was only allowed previously for city and school elections. This has pros and cons. It could save our county a significant chunk of change to combine some of the campus precincts for the June primary, when the dorms are literally empty. But in the wrong hands in a general election it could cause mass confusion.

With little attention, HF242 eliminated the income tax checkoff for a $1.50 political party donation. My pet theory is that the move was prompted by the Libertarians gaining full party status and thus becoming eligible for the checkoff.

And HF469 addresses a bizarre piece of electoral trivia. You can now elect TWO soil and water commissioners from the same township, rather than just one. This came up in Johnson County in 2006; the top two finishers for two seats were from the same township, so the number two seat went to the person who finished third and last. Two offices where you can get more votes and lose: Soil and Water Commissioner and President of the United States.

Between IDs and shorter voting, that’s most of what will affect civilians. Tomorrow, we’ll see some other items that auditors and campaigns will be dealing with.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Election Law Changes Part 1: The ID Rules

Note: Auditors and staffers attended ongoing election trainings this week; I was at one Friday May 12. Some small updates to original post.

“To ensure the integrity of, and to instill public confidence in, all elections in this state the general assembly finds that the verification of a voter’s identity is necessary before a voter is permitted to receive and cast a ballot.”

Well, there ya have it. Paul Pate’s "Election Integrity" (sic) bill is signed and now the law of the land.

For weeks now I’ve been bombarded, at work and at home, with requests for a deep dive into what it all means. I’ve been putting it off because of my professional role in all this as an election staffer. I’ve been 85 to 90% sure on most of this for weeks but I needed to get to 100 before publishing. Thank you all for waiting.

Let’s get the biggest question I’ve been getting out of the way first. It’s going to be more important to GET people registered ahead of time, but the voter registration process itself changes very little. You can still fill out a form or, if you have an Iowa driver’s license, register on line. You can still have a drive and register other people to vote, the registration forms don’t change, the requested and required information does not change. Election Day registration has not been eliminated, and there’s nothing like the proof of citizenship requirements that Kansas and Arizona have.

As for the items that HAVE changed, what I’ve come up with is so long that I’m going to have to break it into four parts. In the next days I will look at:
Today, we’ll start with the ID provisions themselves.

The acceptable forms of ID are fairly limited. Democrats offered multiple amendments to expand the list, but all failed. We are left with:
a. Before a precinct election official furnishes a ballot to a voter under section 49.77, the voter shall establish the voter’s identity by presenting the official with one of the following forms of identification for verification:
(1) An Iowa driver’s license.
(2) An Iowa nonoperator’s identification card.
(3) A United States passport.
(4) A United States military or veterans identification card.

Hy-Vee Fuel Saver cards are not included.

The intent, frankly, is to as much as possible without crossing the lines of previous court rulings force the use of the Iowa driver’s license. (Note: The non-operator ID issued by the DOT is functionally equivalent to the driver’s license, except for the driving part. From here on out when I refer to “license” I also mean “or non-operator ID”.) Previous cases in other states have held that if there is a mandatory ID, there must be a free version.

Thus, the bill has a provision for a “voter verification card,” which I’m calling the “Magic Card.”

The voter ID requirements will not fully take effect until the Magic Cards are up and running (because to do otherwise would be risky in court). That’s going to take some reprogramming of IVoters, the state voter file software. Not clear how long that will be.

Update: Secretary of State staff said Friday the target date for the "voter verification cards" will be December 1st. The plan is to begin a "slow rollout" of educating voters at the polls during this fall's city and school elections, then start asking for IDs after January 1, 2018.

The only people who will get the Magic Card will be the people with no Iowa license number. Auditors are specifically prohibited from sending these cards cards to anyone else. People who do have a license will instead get an “acknowledgement.” Last week auditors were told this would be a letter rather than a card, but today we were told that it was not yet clear if it would be a letter or a card. If it is a card, it will have a different design than the Magic Card. Personally I'm hoping for a card format, because people love those cards and carry them till they fall apart. But as you'll see below there's some downside to having two kinds of cards.

Many, many people think that the lines on the voter registration asking for a license number or the last four digits of the SSN  are an either/or option, but that's not correct.

Since 2003, the letter of the law says if you have an Iowa license number, you are REQUIRED to give that number. Not "unless you don't have your license with you," not "it's easier to remember my Social Security number." Required.

The  SSN option is only meant to be used by people without an Iowa license. Both these numbers have to be verified through an ID lookup managed by the Iowa DOT.

Now, in the real world, practice has been that  if you gave us only the partial SSN, we simply verified that, and we didn't have to also check to see if you had an Iowa license number.

That'll basically still be OK. The Secretary of State's office tells me: "The SOS is working with our IVoters vendor and with the DOT to provide weekly updates of DLs.  That will enable auditors to match new registrants against the DL database, and thus add the DL to the voter’s record.  We are presently in the process of meeting with both our vendor and the DOT to develop these requirements."
The Secretary of State’s office will do an initial cross match between the state voter file and the Iowa Department of Transportation database, and will import all the driver’s license numbers that are not already on file. They will then send everyone who does not have a DL number a Magic Card to use instead of the license.  Buried in the fine print: this card needs to be signed before the poll worker sees it.

After that first statewide wave, auditors have to mail the Magic Cards on an ongoing basis.

As for that first wave, the statewide number 85,000 got tossed around a lot. That number appears to be based on a preliminary matchup.

As of a month or so ago, 24,813 Johnson County voters (29% of our county registration) did not have a DL number on their voter records. We probably have more than anyone else but I doubt we have close to a third of the statewide total.

Roughly 1/3 of our 92,000 active voters first registered in Johnson County before we started asking for license numbers. 40% of those people do not have a license number on their voter record. We started asking for license numbers when the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) kicked in at the beginning of January 2003.  If you haven’t re-registered in 15 years, you may never have been asked for your license number.

A lot of these people will get their license number filled in during the match-up process. But some won’t because they’ve aged out of the driving population and have had no reason until now to need a non-driver ID. Voters using the nursing home absentee procedure are exempt from the ID requirements, but a lot of non-driving seniors are living at home or with adult children and getting rides, and they’re NOT exempt.

Of the remaining 2/3 of our voters who first registered in 2003 or later, just 20% have no license number listed.  That’s probably the highest rate in the state because of our out of state student population.

Remember, the real intent behind ID laws is to call into question universal suffrage itself. There’s a still vocal contingent that believes only “taxpayers” – read that as property tax payers – should be able to vote, especially on local offices and money issues. Symm v. United States, the 1978 Supreme Court ruling that yes, students DO get to vote in college towns, really sticks in their craw.

In a late amendment, auditors are prohibited from sending a Magic Card to anyone EXCEPT the people without DL numbers. That deliberately de-values the card, and turns it into evidence that the person did not have the preferred form of ID, the Iowa license.

This means anyone pulling out a Magic Card is going to be singled out, and probably get extra scrutiny from the Republican poll watchers. And people still carrying their old cards will wonder why the voter in front of them used “their voter card” while they were asked for a license.

Voters living in care centers are exempt from all this stuff which is good but self-serving, as that’s a conservative leaning demographic. One of the only two good things any of this year’s election legislation does is expands the nursing home team voting process to additional facilities. I wouldn’t exactly call it “fraud,” but let’s just say I’ve seen a few voters over the years who see the cognitive decline of a parent as a way to cast a second vote – oops, I mean “help Mom vote.”

So what happens if you don’t have ID? Well, for the rest of this year and for 2018 you can sign an oath. Two things worry me here. One is, there's a lull you to sleep aspect. People may  think signing the oath will still be OK in 2020, when it won't. The other is, it could serve as a point of protest: "I hate this ID law, I want to do the oath instead."

Please, please, PLEASE people: Don’t take out your frustration with the law on the poor poll workers or on me. We can handle it but we can't do anything about it, and you're making the people behind you in line wait longer. Save your anger for the legislators who passed this; voting is the best revenge.

If you don't have your license or a Magic Card, you can also present the same ID materials you can use now for an Election Day registration:
a)  An out-of-state driver's license or nonoperator's identification card.
b)  A United States passport. (already included in ID law)
c)  A United States military identification or veterans ID card. (already included in ID law); the veterans’ card is a new addition to the EDR materials)
d)  An identification card issued by an employer.
e)  A student identification card issued by an Iowa high school or an Iowa postsecondary educational institution.
The catch is: the student IDs have to include an expiration date… which the Regent’s universities rather conveniently don't have. Neither does my county employee ID.

There is also an “attester” provision where another voter living in the same precinct can vouch for you. This covers the couple, or couple with their young adult, where someone forgot their license. But you can only attest for two people and you have to live in the precinct… meaning Democrats will have to rotate their poll watchers and vote protection volunteers in and out. All attesters will also have to show ID, as will everyone attesting for an Election Day registration.

Worst case, you can vote a provisional ballot… but the bill is clear that if you don’t show up at the auditor’s office with ID materials, the ballot is to be rejected. Update: In one small positive change, provisional voters will be able to present evidence to auditors through the deadline for receiving absentee ballots - generally noon the Monday after the election. Previously, that deadline was noon Thursday. Good thing we have more time, because we'll have more provisional ballots.

Voters making Election Day moves within a county will now have to provide both ID and proof of address. This section of the law takes effect right away this July 1st. Previously, they were among the few voters who had to show ID, but the ID was accepted even with an old address. This could be a barrier to people who have just  moved and haven’t gotten bills or items showing the new address yet. It may, ironically, increase improper voting as people may find it easier just to go back to their old polling place.

And voters who first register by mail, even those who get a Magic Card, will still have to show their ID materials (such as out of state license and proof of address) before voting in their first federal election. That’s not just an extra burden – it’s confusing for voters AND auditors, who will now have to track additional data points: Did they first register by mail? Federal or non-federal election? Did they show their items yet?

So that covers the ID requirements. But stay tuned; I still have two more days of bad news.