Sunday, May 17, 2020

An election like no other

We passed a milestone yesterday in Johnson County: we have mailed out more ballots for the June 2 primary - 21,367 - that we have for any other election. That's ANY other election; the old record was 20,951 in the 2012 presidential. We've seen more total early votes, of course, once you add in satellites and voting at the office. But only 99 people (disproportionately county employees and people fixing mail problems) took advantage of drive-thru voting in the first two weeks.

The request total is also above the TOTAL primary vote of 18,675 that we saw in the record turnout 2018 primary. I'm not calling that record broken yet, not till we see what comes back. Personally, I expect a higher than average rate of unreturned ballots once people realize 1) the presidential race isn't on the ballot 2) there's only one contest on the Republican side, and 3) that contest is NOT the sheriff's race, which is on the Democratic side. To the rest of the state, this is a US Senate and congressional primary, but in Johnson County, where primaries are local, it's a sheriff primary.

Usually, gigantic vote by mail numbers like 2012 are racked up by months and months of Democratic doorknocking, but the June 2020 primary is being driven by making things easy: a postage paid absentee ballot request in every voter's hands. Not QUITE as easy as letting people sign up to automatically get a mailed ballot every election (a VERY popular item which I hear VERY often on the phones), but better than many other states and WAY better than most Republican run states. As you know I'm not the biggest Paul Pate fan, but in this case I believe he's sincerely motivated by safety and legit trying to do the right thing.

This sets a precedent, though. Having allowed the traditional 40 days of mail voting, instead of the 29 that the GOP legislature trimmed it to in 2018, and having mass mailed requests, it'll be very hard for Pate to back away from those measures in November.

Under normal circumstances, which the current plague is certainly not, I don't much care for voting by mail. It adds a third party, the post office, between the voter and the auditor.  The post office is rising to the occasion, but more people involved mean more mistakes, and delay is inherent. Handing someone a ballot takes seconds, mailing someone a ballot takes days. (Add another postal round trip and more days to that if the person also needs the request form mailed. Iowa's system of a separate request for each election is the most labor intensive way to do this.)

If you vote by mail you also don't have the helping hands of the office staff and pollworkers double checking the easy to forget stuff like signatures and seals. It's a process more prone to mistakes.

But once states go vote by mail, which Iowa de facto has for this election, they don't go back. The birth of All Vote By Mail was a statewide special election in Oregon in early 1996. Voters liked it so much that they passed a 1998 initiative to make ALL Oregon elections all mail.

I'm predicting that the 2020 cycle will be the last presidential election with any traditional, precinct based polling places. COVID is just the last straw in a trend that's been coming. It's getting harder to get workers and polling places. More and more locations don't want the chaos and the perceived security risk. This is especially true of schools, who would rather play security theater to parents than, well, actually do anything about guns.

The other issue is an accessibility standard that is above and beyond ADA and a mindset that everyone will be DRIVING to the polls. You can't vote at a dorm because there's not parking or a circle drive for Grandma to drop Grandpa off at the door to go vote - at a COLLEGE DORM. So the 1000 students who would be taking stairs or the elevator to the polls have to go several blocks away instead in order to accommodate Hypothetical Grandpa.

All these things combined mean that the future of elections is mail and vote centers. I'm also expecting President Biden to put an end to caucuses and to kill off New Hampshire along with us. Why reward two states that blew him off?

Iowa is in the bizarre position of not only having a bizarre virtual convention cycle - hey, DNC, I though Virtual Caucus was a BAD thing! - but having district and state conventions where the presumptive nominee is not viable. As a district/state delegate I am not allowed to switch, and I have to keep voting for my dropped out candidate, Elizabeth Warren, until the second ballot of the national convention. If there is one.

Why would I want to go to the national convention, even if it is in my native state?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, says she has floated the idea to DNC Chairman Tom Perez of hosting the party convention in a "gigantic" stadium.

“Get a gigantic stadium, and put people six feet apart," Pelosi said. "Then maybe instead of having 80,000 people there you would have 16,000 people there, and just do it all in one day.”

Miller Park does have more than twice the capacity of Fiserv Forum at nearly 42,000, but the type of stadium Pelosi suggested does not exist in Milwaukee. Lambeau Field and Camp Randall exist as in-state possibilities for this type of a move.
Oh, THAT'S why. National delegate is highly competitive, but I stand a better chance of that than I do of getting Packers tickets. This may be my only way into the Frozen Tundra. Someone has to DIE for you to get Packers tickets.

It would be a fun last hurrah for the last caucus season. South Carolina, which was the whole ball game in 2020 (Iowa's result, when we finally got it, was completely irrelevant), will be first in 2024. That should help Vice President Harris get off to a good start. As for me, I'm just glad COVID didn't hit a month earlier in my 750 body caucus room.

Back to the June primary, the unprecedented turnout makes gaming out the winners especially hard. There are going to be many, many more infrequent voters and de facto No Party (WHY do people love the word "independent" so much? WHY are we taught that?) voters than you usually see in a primary.

Personally, I'd like to see much stricter timelines and laws on party changes. The deadline should be before candidates file, so you have to actually choose your party based on its overall principles, rather than crossing over for one specific candidate. I'm on the wrong side of history there, with all the trends being toward open primaries and the even worse Top Two, but it's a hill I'll die on. If you're so proud of being an "independent" (sic), let us partisans choose our party nominees, and go vote in the general election.

That's another thing we're seeing in part because of the COVID driven vote by mail election: dramatic shifts in party affiliation in my county. In Johnson County it's been a triple whammy, with each stage leading to Democratic gains.

Normal party registration trends between elections are a slow steady shift away from parties and toward No Party, driven mainly by registrations from the DOT. When parties gain, it's big and all at once, from primaries, caucuses, and list maintenance mailings (which inactivate voters who are on average younger, more mobile, and No Party - in short, students who moved away).

In mid-September Democratic registration sat at 46.55% in Johnson County. At that point big pre-caucus registration drives started, culminating in caucus night itself with 21,436 attendance and a net plus of 4000 Democratic registrations (new or changed) in one night. When that was done, Democratic registration had shot past the old record of 49.24% (at the June 2016 primary) all the way up to 51.04%.

After a brief backslide to 50.74% caused by cards coming back from caucus attendees with bad addresses (read: missing apartment numbers), the countywide list maintenance mailing kicked in, and long-departed students started moving to Inactive status (my best catch this time was a sorority girl who last voted in 1994). The Democratic share passed the caucus peak and climbed to 51.69%.

The Republicans were dropping through all this, part of a trend that saw them dropping steadily ever since the 2016 caucuses. They were at 21.92% in April 2016, but bottomed out at 17.71% on March 23 - their lowest level in the county since 1976.

The third whammy, the primary mailing, reversed this trend for Republicans, and even further accelerated Democratic registration. Through yesterday, Democrats were up to a whopping 53.69%, while Republicans have recovered to 18.46%. The registration trends from the mailing have coincidentally mirrored the changes from the countywide mailing, with a ratio of 2.9 registered Democrats for each Republican, up from the historic, anecdotal two to one ratio long seen in Johnson County. (Third parties are less than 1% and have been slipping through all three waves of registration activity.)

In fact, Democrats are now for the first time nearly doubling the No Party voters. No Party last led the Democrats for about three years from the 2000 presidential election till the 2004 caucuses. As recently as mid-December they were at 33.85% - well behind the Democrats, but incrementally climbing each week with those apolitical registrations from the DOT.

Then the caucus wave kicked in, with people starting to get affiliated before the mid-January list printing deadline. After the caucuses No Party had slipped to 30.32%. They briefly recovered to 30.58% by March, with the inactivations from bad caucus addresses coming 100% out of the Democrats and with the usual share of people immediately switching back (if you do that, I don't think you should vote in the June primary, but that's just my opinion...)

The countywide mailing reversed that trend and pushed No Party down to 29.83%, and before they had a chance to recover the primary absentee mailing hit. A normal primary mailing would just go to known primary voters or to party members, but this went to everyone, in effect actively encouraging people to affiliate with a party.

And many have. No Party slipped below their old record low (28.61% at the 2016 primary) ten days ago and now are at just 27.13% of county registration. Johnson County is now close to a point where Democrats have a three to one  lead over Republicans and a two to one lead over No Party.

Despite all this registration activity, actual new registrations have been very flat. Total active status registration bottomed out at the end of processing the countywide mailing on April 17 at 90,370. A month later, despite Democrats jumping two full points in registration share and Republicans gaining 0.6%, with corresponding No Party and third party losses, total registration is up just 55 people at 90,425. New registrations are almost immediately balanced by other counties taking voters away from us - many of those from the Dorm Diaspora. (Under-discussed issue: the census impact of COVID, and vacant campuses on April 1, on college towns.)

That shows that just about EVERYTHING about this election is being driven by that statewide mailing. It's been an election like no other, but it feels like the future.

Oh, as for my own ballot? Brad Kunkel, of course, for sheriff, the three incumbent supervisors, and Greenfield.