Thursday, December 27, 2018

Change the rules if you don't like the results

As Royceann Porter takes her seat on the Board of Supervisors, I see the local Republicans (or at least the losing candidate in last week's election) are talking about supervisor districts again. Which is the classic 21st century Republican M.O.: If you don't like the results, change the rules. But districts would not get the outcome they want.

The apparent goal is an all-rural "doughnut" district surrounding the urban area, like Linn County had until this election. The math for that does not work in Johnson County. I showed the math six years ago.

Supervisor districts in Johnson County will NOT get you a farmer from Solon, a farmer from Oxford, a farmer from Sharon Center, a farmer from Lone Tree, and a token liberal from The City. Supervisor districts will get you three supervisors from Iowa City, one from Coralville, one from North Liberty, and shut out the rurals completely.

The best option for rural voters is the present at large system where they have influence over all five seats. And it's disproportionate influence, since they turn out at a higher percentage rate than the in-town folks.

But the rural voters can't do it alone. Even in a district system, all five seats would be dominated by urban voters. If they want a supervisor who "represents the rural community" they need a candidate who ALSO appeals to urban voters - like Sally Stutsman did in winning five terms.

A candidate with a philosophy that the Board should only plow and grade roads and rubber-stamp re-zonings will NOT appeal to urban voters.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

House 55 a failure of strategy as much as law

The battle for House District 55 is now de facto over, with the courts kicking the question of 29 ballots that were barcoded rather than stamp-canceling postmarked back to the Republican-controlled Iowa House, which will undoubtedly refuse to open the ballots and will rule incumbent Mike Bergan a nine vote winner over Democrat Kayla Koether.

Leave aside the court's failure to define what legally constitutes an "intelligent barcode" or a "postmark." That issue is moot anyway. The Legislature will almost certainly eliminate the postmark issue by saying ballots must arrive before the polls close - which will be clear, but which will count fewer votes.

If so, they should make up for that lost time on the front end and allow auditors to mail domestic ballots 45 days out, which is what overseas and military voters get, or even the 40 days we had till this year. More time means more problems solved. But that's a different issue.

The issue I am concerned about is tactical, not legal.

Yes, I want to #CountEveryVote. But this needs to be said: Relying on vote by mail cost Koether and the Iowa Democratic Party the election. 

For at least the last ten cycles IDP has bullied voters toward mailed ballots, no matter what. You're a Bad Democrat if you don't fill out your ABR - even if you would be better served by a satellite site or a courthouse vote, even if you want to join the opening day March To The Polls, even if you are 100% reliable on Election Day - even if you work in an auditor's office!

I am never going to fill out an ABR. Don't even ask.  I have a convenient polling place three feet in front of my desk. Granted, most voters don't work in a courthouse, but even leaving that aside, I would never trust something as critical as a ballot to the Postal Service. They don't have the resources to do the quality of work they did 20 years ago. I have one bill without online payment available, and I don't even like sending that $25 to Von Maur in the mail.

(Why can't we vote online? Or, if you insist on voting by mail, why can't we do the whole request process online without requiring an original paper copy as follow-up?)

Vote by mail has its place and its uses but it is far less reliable than other methods of voting. But IDP pushes a one-size-fits-all program that emphasizes mail over all other voting methods.

1000 people at satellite sites or the auditor's office is 1000 votes, or maybe 995 because mistakes still happen. But 1000 ABRs is 900 votes and 100 problems - ballots lost in the mail or thrown away. People not understanding.  People filling forms out just to make the volunteer go away, either never intending to vote at all or intending all along to go to the polls, where they may now have to do a provisional ballot because of that ABR.

Voters are not even informed that satellite voting and the auditor's office are options - because staffers want to make their vote by mail quota. If you push a voter to the office or a satellite, that doesn't count toward your quota. And don't pretend there isn't a quota. In the 2004 cycle I heard stories of staffers having their friends fill out duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate ABRs to boost their numbers. (They still only got one ballot, but the unit of measure was requests.)

I attended trainings last summer to help teach doorknockers. They were TOLD, first thing, they HAD to fill out an ABR. When I brought up satellites and office votes I was barely acknowledged. Volunteers were also told they could not leave a blank request form with a voter. At that point I undercut the staffer and corrected that misinformation.

None of this is criticism of the staffers - it's criticism of the plan.

Well, congrats. Those 29 ABRs in Winneshiek County counted toward some staffer's quota. But they didn't count when it mattered. How many of these 29 (non) voters were right in town in Decorah and could have been asked to make a quick stop at the courthouse? How many could have been steered to the satellite site at the Luther student union? How many of these (non) voters were in populations actually best served with a mailed ballot - rural, mobility challenged, or out of town? These are not hypothetical questions; I'd like numbers.

It's way past time for the state party to back off on shoving vote by mail down everyone's throats, adapt plans to local needs and local political culture, and fully inform voters of all voting options.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Elected Official Factoids

With Endless Election Season finally over following Royceann Porter's election to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, we have a more or less final roster of the elected officials who will represent Johnson County in the coming year.

A total of 219 elected officials represent Johnson County voters at all levels of government, from Donald Trump to dogcatcher (the official title is "Canine Control Commissioner"). That's not counting school boards for districts that are mostly in other counties. The county has a dozen school districts but only four are mostly in our county - one more complication of the new combined city-school election we will see next November.

Just kidding about Canine Control Commissioner (if we did elect dogg catchers there could only be one choice), but 84 of these officials are township officers - 21 clerks and 63 trustees who deal with fire and cemetery budgets and fence disputes in the rural area. These seats are rarely contested and sometimes decided by write-ins when no one files. Four of these township seats are currently vacant, though two appointments have been decided but not yet finalized (the incumbents who tried not to run are getting re-appointed anyway). I'm including those two people in the stats below.

The township officials are on average older and more male than other officials. We have a big gender gap - 70 of the 219 elected officials are women and 147 men. When the township offices are excluded, the gender balance gets much closer - 55 women and 80 men. Several governmental bodies are female majority, most notably the four women, one man Board of Supervisors.

Other types of diversity are harder to document and since I don't want to leave anyone out I won't go too far down that road. To the best of my knowledge we have four African Americans in office - Porter,  Iowa City council members Bruce Teague and Mazahir Salih, and Iowa City school board member Ruthina Malone.

30 of the 219 offices are elected on a partisan basis, and of those 30 there are 21 Democrats, including every seat that is controlled solely by Johnson County voters. Though we are the People's Republic, we have 51 registered Republicans representing Johnson County voters, from Trump to the trustees. These are either partisan officials at the state or federal level where other counties have outvoted us, or locals in officially nonpartisan office.(Township offices were partisan until 2006.)

135 of the 219 officials are registered Democrats, and 31 are registered no party. None are registered with third parties, though we have had a Green school board member and a Libertarian mayor in recent years.

The median age elected official is Kathy Swenka of the Clear Creek Amana school board, by coincidence celebrating her 58th birthday today. Excluding the township officials makes Porter our median age official; she turned 53 last week.

Seven of our elected officials are under the constitutional minimum of 35 to be elected president. The only one under 30 is new state senator Zach Wahls, who at 27 is the youngest by nearly four years. Tyler Baird of the Lone Tree city council, at 31, is next youngest.

Our oldest elected official is Union Township trustee Donald Johnson, who turns 90 next week. At 85, Chuck Grassley is next. Nine officials are over 80, all township officials except Grassley and Dottie Maher of the University Heights city council.

Grassley is also the official who has represented Johnson County the longest. Grassley has held public office since 1958, serving first in the legislature and then the US House, but he did not have Johnson County voters till his first Senate win in 1980. At least a dozen officials have served continuously since before the turn of the century; my data on first election dates for township officers is incomplete.
Among strictly local offices, the official with the longest service is a matter of definition. Jim Bartels has been on the Tiffin city council continuously since 1989. Tom Gill of the Coralville city council won his first term in 1987, but voluntarily took two years off at the turn of the century.
However you define the new champ, the old leader was Bob Dvorsky. He was continuously in office from his first Coralville city council win in 1979 until his retirement from the state senate this year, save for a gap of a few days in 1994 when he resigned from the state house  to run in a state senate special election. That allowed the two special elections to be combined. To my knowledge he's the only legislator who has ever done that and I can't repeat the story enough.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Porter's win a sign of long term change in Johnson County

Johnson County's endless election season, which went into overtime after the sudden death of Supervisor Kurt Friese on October 26, finally ended Tuesday with Democrat Royceann Porter's barrier-breaking win over Republican Phil Hemingway.

The December 18 election wraps up a run of four large elections in four months, with the November 6 general election and a September-October pair of Iowa City council elections in which Bruce Teague replaced Kingsley Botchway. It's the busiest run of elections since 1993, when we had a cluster of six in seven months: a school bond in May, a June-July pair in Iowa City to replace a city council member, and the usual fall run of September school, October city primary, and November city election. (The school election goes away next year and gets combined with the November city election.)

I worked in the auditor's office back in the Grunge Era, though not in elections. I was a part time minute taker, and I learned far more about politics in two years of meetings than I did in five years getting a political science degree (the extra year was spent drinking). I learned that zoning fights were the nastiest because that's where the money is.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors was a rural dominated body back then, led by the traditional part-time officials who were mainly farmers. They only met twice a week, and some members were rarely in the building except for meetings.

That was just... how it had always been. Sure, we had newcomer Joe Bolkcom, the first Iowa City progressive ever elected to the board, but he was a skunk at the picnic and had trouble even getting his motions seconded. There was a sense that, despite all their other functions affecting the whole county, the Board of Supervisors "belonged" to the rural voters.

As we can tell from the Hemingway campaign's rhetoric this election, some people still think so. More than once I heard from voters: "city people shouldn't be allowed to vote for supervisor."

We had our ugliest special election ever in that era. A supervisor resigned out of the blue and the appointment committee named Don Sehr, a gruff but likeable big old farmer from Sharon Center who had served three board terms in the 70s and 80s. The liberals petitioned for an election and Sehr lost the nomination at the Democratic convention to Pat Gilroy, a longtime party activist and one of my many mentors who is sadly no longer with us.

Sehr bolted the party and ran as an independent, and won convincingly. The mood was so nasty that one of his supporters came to the Gilroy "victory" party to laugh at us.

Sehr won that 1994 special election with 4291 votes to Gilroy's 2571, and that was one of the key elections in developing one of my formulas for understanding Johnson County politics. As I wrote before Porter's election:
There is a "Farm Vote" constituency in Johnson County. Not all rural voters are part of it, and  it includes some old timers in town, but "Farm Vote" is the best shorthand label I have.  These voters will not support a progressive candidate for supervisor - that office in particular more than others.

It's made up of Democrats who will back a Tom Harkin or a Tom Miller, but maybe not a Hillary Clinton or a Bruce Braley. It's made up of sophisticated local Republicans more motivated by business than ideology. It's made up of independents who care more about who is in the courthouse than in the White House.
That Farm Vote has been consistently 3000 to 4000 votes, in presidential elections and in low turnout specials, all the way back to at least 1992 .

The "Farm Vote"

Election Measure Total
1992 general Duffy minus Bolkcom 3802
1994 special Sehr total (win) 4291
2000 general Neuzil minus Thompson 3376
2000 general Smalley minus Brown 3761
2004 general Harney minus Sullivan 4435
2008 general Harney minus Sullivan 4273
2010 special Cardella total (loss) 3764
2012 general Neuzil minus Sullivan 2788
2013 special Etheredge total (win) 3142
2018 general Heiden minus Rettig 3086

Tuesday's election fell right into that pattern. Hemingway won 4167 votes. He got the Farm Vote. He got EXACTLY the Farm Vote. In 1994, when we had just 59,000 registered voters in the county, that was a win number.

But now we have 97,000 registered voters, and that growth has been almost entirely in the cities and not in the Farm Vote. Porter won 5444, twice what Gilroy earned so long ago.

Our results for this election almost exactly - turnout within 100 votes and similar shares of the vote - paralleled the January 2010 special election in which Democrat Janelle Rettig, who had been appointed in October 2009, defeated Republican Lori Cardella, who had led a petition drive to force the election. (Cardella's number is slightly lower than Hemingway's because a third candidate took 332 votes, mostly from her.)

That election was a barrier breaker, as Rettig became the first out LGBT supervisor elected in the state. Porter breaks a barrier, too, as Johnson County's first black countywide office holder.

There have been African Americans in Iowa City office recently - current council member Mazahir Salih, former council member Kingsley Botchway, and former mayor Ross Wilburn. We've also had school board members LaTasha DeLoach and Ruthina Malone.Those jobs are non-partisan (though all those people are Democrats). You have to go back to state representative William Hargrave in the early 1970s to find a black Johnson County Democrat in a partisan office.

That's a very big thing for the Johnson County Democrats. At the nominating convention, a friend of Porter's who came along for personal support asked me, "where are all the black delegates at?" Having nominated, campaigned hard for, and elected Porter, the county party is now walking the walk when it comes to visible support.  Barack Obama is one thing, but that thing is over and this thing is here and now and local, and Porter's deep roots in the local African American community will further strengthen the ties.

There is still a lot of work to do in Johnson County on race; after the one forum, we heard comments about Hemingway "sounding better" and being more "articulate."  But I think Porter's seat at the Big Table will help shift those perceptions of what a leader in Johnson County looks and sounds like, and I hope our next convention we will be less monochromatic.

Adding to the diversity, Johnson County may have the most female county board in the state with four women - Porter, Rettig, Lisa Green-Douglass and Pat Heiden - and one token male, Rod Sullivan. Add in recorder Kim Painter and county attorney Janet Lyness and that's six women to four men in the courthouse.

The Democrats did not take this win for granted. The memory of the March 2013 special election, in which Republican John Etheredge upset Democrat Terry Dahms, is still fresh. Everything that could go wrong in that election did go wrong, including self inflicted wounds - a split other than the rural-urban split that led some "progessives" to throw Dahms under the bus. There were no such splits this time, though a few people were unusually quiet.  (Hemingway has some ties to some left Democrats through the failed fight to keep old Hoover Elementary School open.)

Porter comes out of the Teamsters and this is another big win for local labor, which has been on a winning steak of late.

There is, however, a cloud to this silver lining.

Porter carried the election day vote in Iowa City and University Heights by two to one, 67-33%, winning every urban area precinct except North Liberty 6 (which includes rural Madison Township voters) and, losing by one vote, Coralville 2. But Hemingway won every rural precinct and led in the rural part of the county by a whopping 73-26.

Zoom in on the precincts and you see Porter carrying Iowa City 21 (the Goosetown part of the north side) with 88% and Hemingway winning Washington Township (Frytown and rural Kalona) with 95%. We saw these kinds of differences in the general election results, and back in the Rettig-Cardella election, but not nearly this extremely exaggerated.

So there is a lot of rural work to do. Johnson County has office holders who can bridge this gap. Senator Kevin Kinney is most prominent, but a couple of our small town mayors, Christopher Taylor of Swisher (who is also county Democratic chair) and Lone Tree's Jonathan Green (who served a term on the state central committee) are also noteworthy.

Unfortunately, Republican affiliation is becoming more and more a part of rural cultural identity - nationally, in Iowa, and even in the People's Republic. Gigabytes have been posted trying to "solve" that issue, and I don't know if it IS solvable.

There's certain to be some kind of backlash in rural Johnson County to Porter's win. There has been a years long simmering effort by Republicans to force supervisor districts, but the rhetoric has shifted, perhaps because of this post where I show the math.

A district map would not produce the Board that the Farm Vote would see as "fair and representative," which would be a farmer from Solon, a farmer from Oxford, a farmer from Sharon Center, a farmer from Lone Tree, and one token liberal from In Town.

We used to have boards like that, and part of the rural resentment is that they no longer have that kind of over-representation. Rural Johnson County is 16% of the registered voters, and they have 20% of the supervisors in Lisa Green-Douglass. We also have one supervisor, Sullivan, who grew up on a family farm and carries that experience whatever his current residence is.

A district plan would not even produce the map Linn County had until this year with a "donut" rural district surrounding the cities. A district plan in Johnson would produce three Iowa City districts, a Coralville seat, and a district that would be just over half North Liberty, and would be more likely to shut out rural representation than increase it.

Instead, the backlash move will probably be for a reduction in seats from five to three. The Farm Vote may have concluded that they can't control or win a seat, but at least, they think, they can try to force two liberal Democrats out of a job, and if they're lucky it might be the black woman and the lesbian.

But they have to win an election to make that happen, and Johnson County urban voters are much much more tuned in to such gaming-the-rules shenanigans and local inside baseball  issues than they used to be. At the time of the March 2013 loss I wrote:
Johnson County has a lot of lefties who will call their legislators about an amendment to a bill that won't even get out of the funnel, rather than calling their neighbors to get out and vote in a local election. We have a lot of ivory tower types who are above gauche townie things like a zoning fight, which is why Iowa City's council had been business conservative dominated all my 20+ years here.
Those days are over. The Iowa City council, after decades of Chamber of Commerce control, flipped in 2015 with the sweep of all four seats on the ballot by the "Core Four" progressives. Iowa City business conservatives have learned that they will never again elect an unreconstructed townie good old boy like Terry Dickens or Ernie Lehman, and that to win they have to appeal to at least some liberals.

Tuesday's election may have been the same watershed moment in county politics. Hemingway had a lot of advantages - name ID from his general election and school board runs and a low turnout off-cycle election a week before Christmas that gave his Farm Vote base an edge. But he fell 1300 votes short as city turnout swamped that constant, steady, stagnant, finite 4000 person Farm Vote.

The rurals punched above their weight - but there are just a lot more voters in town than in the country. If the shrinking share of the county vote that is rural wants a seat at the table, they need to build a coalition and find a candidate who also appeals to the much larger base of voters in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty.

And the old-fashioned philosophy that the county supervisors should do nothing except plow and grade the roads and rubber-stamp rezonings does not appeal to voters in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Supervisor Special And The "Farm Vote"

The field is set in the sprint to the December 18 supervisor special election as Democrat Royceann Porter faces off against Phil Hemingway, the Republican who just lost the general election to Pat Heiden and Janelle Rettig.

The campaign's biggest controversy to date, though, has come from former Democratic supervisor Pat Harney, who tried for the nomination at the November 20 Democratic convention only to lose to Porter 109-42.

It was clear even before November 20 that there was no base in that convention, made up of people who were motivated by governor candidates, party offices, and platform planks to go out to last February's caucuses in a blizzard, for a rural moderate candidate. But the winner still has to carry the election itself, and Johnson County Dems still have not quite recovered from the shock defeat in the March 2013 special election.

In his speeches to the convention, Harney argued that rural voters felt neglected and would not support another Iowa City progressive candidate. Porter's race wasn't QUITE mentioned (she would be our first black supervisor) but it was certainly a strong subtext.

Left unasked in a brief convention Q & A was the question of whether the losing candidate would back the winner. And in the last few days, remarks have surfaced on line and on radio that Harney has a Hemingway sign on his property (a prominent spot on Highway 1). When asked by the Press-Citizen, Harney said the sign was not his but declined to say who he would vote for.

I am disappointed in Pat and I am in no way defending him for not clearly and immediately endorsing Porter. But Harney was very successful in winning elections in this county for a very long time - four contested primaries and four general elections, the convention defeat is his only loss - and in his unfortunate and misdirected convention speech he made a point.

There is a "Farm Vote" constituency in Johnson County. Not all rural voters are part of it, and  it includes some old timers in town, but "Farm Vote" is the best shorthand label I have.  These voters will not support a progressive candidate for supervisor - that office in particular more than others.

It's made up of Democrats who will back a Tom Harkin or a Tom Miller, but maybe not a Hillary Clinton or a Bruce Braley. It's made up of sophisticated local Republicans more motivated by business than ideology. It's made up of independents who care more about who is in the courthouse than in the White House.

This vote was buried (but, as you'll see, still measurable) in the high general election turnout last month, and Hemingway lost badly. But now Democrats need to outnumber them in a more challenging situation, without months of buildup, without statewide and national attention to voting, with people busy or out of town.

The Farm Vote has a sense that the Board of Supervisors should "belong" to them and people like them, because for more than a century it did, in the same way that the Iowa City council "belonged" to the Chamber of Commerce for decades until the Core Four win in 2015. There wasn't a single urban progressive supervisor until Joe Bolkcom in 1992, and the Board didn't get a solid liberal majority until after the 2014 election.

The Farm Vote is well organized year round, election season or not, though a natural social network of churches and clubs and coffee drinking sessions. The word gets through their grapevines. These people WILL vote and they will NOT vote for Royceann Porter.

If you look back at supervisor elections over the past 25 years you see a very strong pattern of how big the Farm Vote is. You can go back to Harney's margin over Rod Sullivan in the 2004 general, you can go back as far as Charlie Duffy's margin over Bolkcom in the 1992 general election (those were vote for three contests), and it's almost the same. 

The "Farm Vote"

Election Measure Total
1992 general Duffy minus Bolkcom 3802
1994 special Sehr total (win) 4291
2000 general Neuzil minus Thompson 3376
2000 general Smalley minus Brown 3761
2004 general Harney minus Sullivan 4435
2008 general Harney minus Sullivan 4273
2010 special Cardella total (loss) 3764
2012 general Neuzil minus Sullivan 2788
2013 special Etheredge total (win) 3142
2018 general Heiden minus Rettig 3086

You can even go back to which two Democrats and one Republican they were backing in the 2000 general election and which one Democrat and one dropped-out-but-still-on-the-ballot  Republican they were not - and the two measures almost exactly line up which is some pretty sophisticated voting behavior.

It doesn't matter whether the candidate was personally conservative or rural (Pat Heiden is neither), but it's a measure of perception and of who this constituency was supporting and opposing.

As you see, it's also almost exactly the same number of people in presidential elections and in low turnout specials, whether the stakes are victory itself or just bragging rights. It's a remarkably consistent pattern across 25 years of elections.

Note that Cardella got more votes in her losing race than Etheredge got in his win. Or, put another way, the regular Democrats outnumbered the Farm Vote in January 2010 and did not in March 2013. I'm confident Porter and the Democrats can outnumber the Farm Vote - but we need to work, and now you know just what needs to happen.