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.

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