Saturday, February 27, 2021

Bad News By The Numbers

Smith and Kaufmann discuss additional amendments

In the words of the great philosopher Beavis, that sucked. 

Led by Sen. Roby Smith and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, Iowa Republican legislators raced through a bill, Senate File 413, that among other things shrinks the voting and voter registration timeline.

Kaufmann angrily argued that none of the changes were "voter suppression." But these kinds of bills are death by a thousand cuts. Each change that makes it just a little bit harder, each day lost, means some people just won't be able to make it work.

How many? Assuming the changes aren't overturned by the inevitable lawsuits, or federal bills don't arrive like the cavalry to save us, here's how the changes could affect the numbers here in Johnson County.

Consider this a warning.

Johnson County's total 2020 turnout was 84,198. 72% of the county vote was cast early. That includes all voting plans - mail, in-person, satellite, and overseas - and those voters went 80% for Joe Biden. Donald Trump won - yes, in Johnson County, won - the 28% who voted on Election Day by a 51-45% margin.

The general assumptions below are that people stick with their 2020 voting plan, unless the context indicates otherwise.
Voter caging: Inactivation after missing one general election

Current Johnson County active status registration is at 97,704. That's immediately after  the annual post office National Change Of Address (NCOA) update, which already inactivated about 2850 voters. That's been standard procedure since 1995, under the 1993 federal Motor Voter law. 

Of the 97,704 active registered, there are 5655 who 1) last updated their registration before the 2018 general election and 2) did not vote in the 2020 general. Under the new law, these voters would be inactivated without advance notice, and only after being inactivated would be sent a must-respond card in order to not get totally cancelled after 2024.

That compares to 2486 who 1) have a last update date before the 2016 general and 2) have not voted since before the 2018 general. Under previous law, these 2486 voters would get a Four Year No Activity reminder card. They would not be inactivated unless that card was returned by the post office as undeliverable or if the current resident indicated the person had moved. (The voter could also sign and return the card and either be OK or be correctly canceled, whichever applied.) If the card was not returned, we were to assume that the voter still lived there.

So those 2486 people lose their advance notice, and an additional 3169 would be inactivated, before being sent a notice, two years sooner.

Some of these people really do need to get inactivated and cancelled. Despite Johnson County's years of proactive alerts before mailings are sent, we still have a small handful of very old active registrations.  The two main issues are 1) Greek houses, who sort their own mail and generally pitch stuff addressed to alumni. (The dorms are very good about getting stuff back to us.) 2) Townie adults who have moved away but still get mail delivered at their parents. The parents are generally more concerned about this than the voters, but we can't fix it without the voter's own signature.

But some infrequent voters don't need to get purged. In 2020 we had 5651 voters who had last voted in the 2016 general and skipped 2018, and another 2697 who had not voted since before 2016 (there was a lot of "I don't like either of them" that year.) All these folks would have had more problems under the new law. This is a case where the cure is worse than the illness.

Change in pre-registration deadline from 10 days to 15

Iowa's registration deadline was 10 days before a general election for decades. This became a "pre-registration" deadline after the Election Day Registration (EDR) law took effect in 2008. There had not been a serious effort to change this deadline in many years. But this week, in a late amendment the day after the House hearing, the bill was amended to move the deadline back to 15 days.

Last year Johnson County had 1121 new registrations from Day 14 (October 20) to Day 10 (October 24).

  • 376 voted at the polls (includes one provisional ballot)
  • 290 voted at satellites
  • 286 voted in person at the office
  • 46 voted by mail
  • 123 didn’t follow through and vote (or tried and failed)

Assuming these people still try to vote, that’s about 1000 more voters who will have to use the more difficult EDR or provisional voting procedures, on top of the roughly 3000 EDRs we had in 2020. That takes longer, which slows down the line for everyone. Of course, some will be Not Votes.

Change in vote by mail request period

(Note that most changes in mail ballot procedure do not affect military and overseas voters, who are covered under federal law.)

Through the 2002 cycle, the first day for domestic civilian voters to request a mailed ballot was 70 days out. From 2004 to 2016 there was no first day specified in the law, and auditors had to keep requests on file indefinitely. My personal record was close to two years. 

I wasn't a fan of this because too-soon requests cause a lot of problems. In the 2004 cycle, requests were coming in from caucus night in January, and student neighborhoods were getting doorknocked in June. Every lease in Iowa City turns over on August 1. When we started mailing ballots out in late September (those were the good old days), many went to bad addresses. We managed to explain this to campaigns in future cycles (I still had to personally remove the request forms from the Johnson County caucus packets), so it got a bit better, but the problem still popped up.

So when the law changed in 2017 to 120 days (early July) I didn't shed many tears. Now we're back to 70 and that affects the workload. We had 35,504 total non-voided vote by mail requests (not counting ones that were later voided when voters changed their voting plan). 10,454 were received and data-entered on days 120 through 71. 

Assuming all these voters still choose vote by mail, this data entry work from Days 120 through 71 is added to the workload of Days 70 through 15. We'll be processing 30% more requests per day.


This also places the initial load of absentee data entry into late August - the same time as the back to campus registration drives. With campus largely locked down, these were relatively small in 2020. But in 2016, total Johnson County registration increased by about 2500 in the two weeks at the beginning of the semester. Two big piles of work that used to be at different times will now be at the same time.

We've also lost summer doorknocking for absentee requests. Back in the 1990s, campaigns could knock all summer, hang onto the forms, and turn them all in on Day 70.

But in an earlier change to the law, campaigns must now turn forms in within 72 hours of collecting them. That means they can't start asking until Day 73. Luckily that's a Saturday, so there will be a kickoff weekend, assuming campaigns are doorknocking in 2022. At the rate Iowa is going we'll still be in COVID mode.

The last day to request a ballot has also changed. When I started working for the auditor in 1997, there was no deadline; we had to honor requests that arrived the day before the election. In that era of faster mail delivery, it sometimes worked.

When a deadline was added to the law, it was originally four days, then changed to 10 or 11 days (depending on election type) in 2017. But in another last-second change, amendments to SF413 moved the deadline to 15 days out.

In Johnson County, 969 voters successfully sent requests and returned counted mailed ballots on days 14 through 10. (There were another 63 voided requests,  mostly people who changed their voting plan, and another 62 who didn’t return the ballot.) These people would have to choose a different voting plan - if possible. Of the 969 successful requests, 128 were mailed out of town. Those people would likely not have been able to vote.

Later start date for mailing out ballots

As noted above, in 2020 Johnson County had 35,504 total non-voided domestic vote by mail requests. (704 of those were not returned.)

The vast majority, 29,432, were mailed on the first day allowed, October 5, 29 days before the election. SF413 changes the first day to mail ballots to just 20 days before the election. That means all these voters would have eight fewer days  to vote and return their ballots. Another 3293 ballots were mailed on days 28 through 21, and those voters would see a corresponding drop in turnaround time. 

Of the total 32,724 ballots mailed before Day 20, 1060 were sent to a different mailing address than their registration street address. Some of those were sent to local post office boxes, which are very common in our smaller towns. But the majority were the more time-sensitive ballots mailed to addresses outside the county. (I would have to go line by line through the list to get an exact number.)

The biggest issue with the shorter mailing window is voters with complications: mail delivery problems (which we don't even learn about for several days), spoiled ballots, or damaged packets.

It’s a little hard to tell but my best estimate is that roughly 700 voters who initially requested a ballot by mail had some kind of problem that required a void and re-issue. (This excludes people who simply changed their voting plan and voted in person.) Some of these were easy, some hard. Some of these were local, some were long distance and could only be dealt with through mail. Some were people with mobility or transportation issues and could only be dealt with through mail.

Some problems are just not going to get fixed. We have lost eight calendar days on the front end for helping these voters...

Drop dead deadline - all ballots must arrive by close of polls

...and we've also lost days on the back end.

Longtime Iowa law has been that ballots postmarked by the day before the election and which arrive in the first few days after the election (usually the Monday after) could be counted. For one election cycle, 2020, we incorporated intelligent bar code tracking into that day before election rule.

All that's gone now and Iowa will have what is called a "Sure Count" deadline by its advocates or a "Drop Dead" deadline by its opponents. Ballots that don't arrive before the polls close don't count. 

(That close will now be an hour earlier, at 8 PM rather than 9. That change has been in the works for a long time and I'm amazed it took this long. We tracked some data on voters between 8 and 9 PM in the 1990s and 2000s and determined that the final hour wasn't much different than the average hour: a little busier than average in campus precincts but almost completely dead in farm rural precincts.)

Johnson County only had 33 counted domestic mail ballots that were postmarked after Election Day, but that’s mostly due to a heroic extra effort by the Iowa City post office who made a second mail delivery on both Monday and Election Day. A lot of ballots where the postmark would have been an issue were already in our hands when the polls closed.

In 2016, we got 117 countable domestic mail ballots after Election Day, and that's more typical. This number will likely increase with out of town voters getting their ballots nine days later. However many it is, they don't count.

In a gap that Kaufmann and Smith plugged mostly for appearance's sake, there's exceptions in the law for overseas ballots and for the Safe At Home ballots sent to some domestic violence survivors.

Johnson County had a total of 667 overseas ballots counted. Most were returned by email. Under a COVID emergency ruling, all overseas voters could return ballots by email. Normally, only military voters or civilians in a very few high risk areas can return ballots by email. In any case, federal law applies here and overseas and military voters will still be sent their ballots 45 days out and will still be counted based on postmarks.

Despite the postmark exception, eight fewer days on the front end will still make it harder for Safe At Home voters. No statistical data is available on Safe At Home but the numbers are very small.

Later Start Date For In Person Voting

When no-excuse early voting began in Iowa in the early 1990s, we could begin voting 40 days before primary and general elections. That early start date let the committed partisans get their business out of the way and made the line shorter for those who decided later.

But Roby Smith decided that we shouldn't vote before watching debates, at least that was the on the record excuse. So in 2017, Republicans shortened this to 29 days. SF413 chops this even more, to 20 days. This time, the excuse was "to be more in line with other states."

Johnson County adapted to COVID by moving our office voting operation to a drive-thru setup at our building's parking ramp. Voters loved it. In 25 working days, we had 18,006 total voters at the ramp. 

5089 of those were in the first seven voting days and would have to vote later. Assuming no one changes their voting plan, and that we have a seven day a week schedule, that’s 267 more voters in the line each day.


I'm still surprised Republicans have not banned satellite voting entirely. (My theory is that some mega-churches are interested in the possibility of satellite sites.) Historically, Johnson County has had the biggest satellite program, and satellite voters have trended the most heavily Democratic. There's no separate vote total data, but looking at party affiliation data, margins of 10 to 1 Democratic at the Iowa City Public Library are not uncommon.

There's been a slight trend away from satellites and toward the office and mail in recent cycles, but we still saw 7457 satellite voters in 2020. 494 of those were at sites on Day 22 and Day 21, which would no longer be allowed.

The new law takes away the auditor's ability to schedule sites on their own. From now on only petitioned sites will be allowed. The petitions for the traditional popular Johnson County sites will undoubtedly happen, but the change increases the chances that we'll also see more petitions for less effective sites. 

We've already seen the worst case scenario: In 2010, when the 21 Bar issue was on the ballot, we were petitioned for 23 separate locations, primarily on campus. And at that time we had five weeks, not three, to get it all done.

Campus is the biggest problem, and no doubt the biggest reason for the change. Rural Republican legislators are, laughably, convinced that the reason Johnson County is The People's Republic is undergrad student votes. It's not - it's faculty and staff that make Johnson County so blue - but there's also many who have an ideological belief (despite a 1978 Supreme Court ruling) that college students should simply not be allowed to vote in their college town and should only vote absentee ballots from their parental address. 

(Sadly, some Johnson County residents think so too. They begrudgingly accept that the students should get to vote for president, but they draw the line at local elections. We haven't had a student on the city council in 40 years.) 

All of our historic data going back to the beginning of unrestricted early voting in Iowa 30 years ago shows that a student is more able to successfully vote a counted ballot in their college town rather than Back Home, and that campus voting sites are more effective before the pre-registration deadline. The only effective ways to get students to vote are pre-deadline sites on campus or Election Day Registration at the polls.

In 2016 we had 2000 voters at the Iowa Memorial Union in a five day run from Day 15 through Day 11, plus another 500 total at three other campus sites. 

With campus being half empty, that dropped to 1217 IMU voters on those same five days this cycle. Only 117 of that was on Monday, Day 15, which is the new pre-registration deadline. The totals increased each day as people learned about the site through word of mouth, and of course students are very deadline-driven. We had over 500 voters on the last day.

Of the exactly 1100 IMU voters from Tuesday through Friday, 195 were completely new registrations to Johnson County. I can't easily get an exact number but most of the rest were changing their address. The number of completely new registrations is lower than it normally would be, because of the high registration from the caucuses. We won't see that in 2022, and probably not in 2024 because either the caucuses will die or President Biden will running again or both.

In any event, these voters would all be shifting from a very simple pre-registration process - complete the form and vote - to a harder EDR process requiring proof of address. That's not insurmountable for on-campus students who have electronic access to their dorm contracts. But off-campus students often don't have bills in their name, and no one habitually carries their paper lease with them.

With fewer days and opportunities, this is where a lot of voters will be pushed into different voting plans. Library voters will likely end up at the office, and the campus vote will turn into EDRs at the polls - or into Not Votes. 

UPDATE: Story County Auditor Lucy Martin reminded me "It all applies to Story County as well except here the county seat and the population center are not the same (which makes things more complicated)." Our office is several blocks from the campus area. Out of the way, out of the cultural comfort zone, and less convenient - but possible. 

But the Story County courthouse is in Nevada, several miles away from Ames. It would be like having to go from Iowa City to Solon to vote early. Grinnell students also face an out of town trek to the Poweshiek County seat in Montezuma. UNI students would have to travel about five miles across town from the campus in west Cedar Falls to the Black Hawk County courthouse in downtown Waterloo.

Impact on Election Day

It’s hard to predict how post-COVID and changes in the law will change people’s voting plans. But just as a numbers exercise:

72.37% of Johnson County voters voted early in 2020: 60,934 early (all voting plans) and 23,264 at the polls. Our previous general election record for highest absentee percentage was 57.93% in 2012. Personally I don’t think we’ll ever drop that low again in a general election and that we will settle into a range of around 65% early. But let’s say we do. 

Take our 2020 turnout of 84,198, and apply the 2012 absentee rate of 57.93% early, and you get 48,776 early and 35,422 at the polls. That’s 12,158 more voters at the polls, and roughly 1.5 times the number poll workers to take care of 1.5 times the number of voters.

That will vary a lot by precinct. It will also mean space crunches in some places, especially the campus precincts.

So more workers, when we're already having trouble keeping enough, and additional Scary Laws about poll watchers to scare them. It's part of the Big Lie mythology that election workers blocked Republican observers, so Smith and Kaufmann added draconian penalties for "interference." That's the kind of thing that makes poll workers quit - nobody wants to risk jail for trying to manage a bullying poll watcher.

Ballot Chasing Banned

Ballot chasing - I never heard the term "harvesting" until 2018 - has been clean and honest in Iowa, and was well regulated by existing law. But there have been incidents in other states, most notoriously in North Carolina in 2018 where Republican operatives were collecting Democratic ballots and not bringing them in. And the media in particular is very suspicious of the practice. 

So it's not the hill I want to die on, but it still hurts some voters. I don't have numbers, but there's going to be some non-zero number of people who have no one else to help them, or who just won't get it done without the personal persuasion.

I thought there was going to be a fix so that a voter could have anyone they wanted, other than a campaign, return a ballot. That didn't happen, and now only caregivers or immediate family members can drop off your ballot. This eliminates a lot of helpers that seniors rely on like neighbors, church members, or just random people. My parents get a lot of informal help from my mom's hairdresser and her husband.

Maybe I should have prepped these numbers before the debate, but turtles move very fast when they want to, and it wouldn't have changed the votes anyway. 🐢

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