March 2009

Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) –  I returned from the ISAC meeting last week with information about a variety of proposals being considered by the Iowa General Assembly. The auditor’s staff and I are reviewing how these proposals could affect our election operations. One proposal, House File 670, would allow the tabulation of absentee ballots before Election Day. In the 2008 general election more than 40,000 people voted by absentee ballot in Scott County. Other counties saw the same surge in early voting. This massive early voting put a lot of stress on election officials throughout the state. Another proposal, House File 39, would close the polls for general elections at 8:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 p.m. This would establish a uniform closing time with the other elections, such as school board and municipal elections which close at 8:00 p.m.

After Election Audits – One of the more controversial proposals, House File 396, would require after election audits of vote tabulating equipment by hand counting ballots. Proponents of after election audits believe that tabulating equipment needs to be checked by a hand count of ballots to insure the equipment does not malfunction or be subject to manipulation. Three of our neighboring states, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin have some sort of after election audit. The most extreme proponents advocate for a complete hand count of all ballots, in essence a recount.Other advocates believe that a hand count of a random sample of precincts is necessary and sufficient to insure accuracy. They cite the findings of a 2006 panel of computer scientists that including University of Iowa voting machine expert Douglas Jones, and scientists from Stanford, MIT, and other institutions, that concluded all types of voting equipment used in the United States are vulnerable to error or fraud. This panel recommended a hand count of a sample of ballots to check the electronic tallies. Without auditing of vote tabulators they concluded that paper ballots “are of questionable security value.”

The opponents of audits state that hand counts of ballots are subject to human error, which is much more likely to occur than machine error. They cite the experience of numerous county election officials who have hand counted ballots in the past. Hand tabulating ballots from general elections are especially prone to errors due to the large numbers of candidates.

Opponents also cite cost and time factors. In large counties it might be difficult to recruit volunteers to spend possibly weeks counting and recounting ballots making it necessary to employ temporary workers to complete the work. Further, a complete hand count would require many days or even weeks to complete. In this age of instant results the news media and others who are impatient would want instant audit results.

Support After Election Audits – I support after election audits to insure the proper functioning of our vote tabulating equipment and the accuracy of all other aspects of elections. A legislative race in Delaware presents a good example of how things can go wrong. On election night 2008 the challenger had won the election by thirty-one votes (31). Because the race was so close state law required a manual recount of votes in which the incumbent won by fifty votes. Election officials then re-ran the ballots through the vote tabulator and came up with the same results as election night. Further investigation showed that a small batch of ballots had been improperly printed, resulting in the incumbent’s votes being not counted. The machines worked fine, but human error in setting up the printing of some ballots resulted in a lot of embarrassment and almost the wrong result. This error would not have been caught without hand tabulated recount. (Source: Election Administration Report, Vol. 39, No. 5, March 2, 2009, page 5).House File 396, the current proposal before the General Assembly, would require random selection of four precincts in Scott County for hand counting of ballots from general elections. Two contested races would be hand counted. The ad-hoc committee which developed this legislation included county auditors, staff from the office of the Secretary of State, Iowans for Voting Integrity and the League of Women Voters. From my perspective it looks to be balanced legislation which will help to insure the accuracy of our elections and the confidence of the public that everyone’s vote does truly count. I have contacted our Scott County legislators to express my support and request that they pass this bill.

Election Day Registration Successful – Last year’s general election saw the first real test of Iowa’s same day registration law. This provision was very controversial when debated in the legislature. Supporters cited that many Iowans were denied the right to vote because they were not registered at least ten days before the general election. Opponents countered that election day registration could open the door to massive voter fraud. There were special concerns that fraud would occur in border counties, such as Scott County, with non-Iowans crossing the border to vote in our elections.The law took effect on January1, 2008 and covered the primary and school board elections. Few voters took advantage of this new option in those elections. However, in the general election 2,756 Scott County voters chose to register and vote that day. This represented about 3.2 percent of the total vote. Of that number, only eleven registrants could not be certified by the Auditor’s Office. We turned those names over to the County Attorney and Sheriff’s Offices for investigation and possible prosecution for registration fraud. A Sheriff’s detective investigated all eleven people, verified their residences and right to vote, and found no fraud was committed.

Throughout the State 45,929 Iowans used election day registration to be able to vote in the general election. This represented about three percent of the total vote. Of that number, 24,376 had been previously registered in one county but had moved to another county. Under the old law these voters would have been required to vote a provisional ballot. Generally, about half of voters who are required to cast provisional ballots simply choose to not vote.

Davenport High Twelve Club No. 47 – On March 10th Richard Bauer, Scott County Election Supervisor and I visited the Davenport High Twelve Club. We made a one hour presentation about the AutoMark ballot marker and elections in general. Richard and I had a great time and answered some very good questions. We also had many of the members vote on the AutoMark to show how it really is easy to use. If your group or organization would like a demonstration of the AutoMark please call me at 563-370-3915 or my office at 563-326-8631 and we can arrange for a presentation.

The Davenport Promise Election– The proposal to reallocate the local option sales and service tax for Davenport failed with 9,717 voting no to 6,235 voting yes. This vote represented a 22.7 percent turnout of eligible voters in Davenport. The current sales tax allocation is 40 percent for capital improvements and 60 percent for property tax relief. The Davenport Promise proposed to reallocate the 40 percent portion of sales tax receipts for two purposes. The first would allocate up to 30 percent for funding forgivable college loans for residents of Davenport, with any balance less than 30 percent used for capital improvements. The second would allocate 10 percent for public safety. This was a hard fought contest with strong feelings on both sides. Congratulations to both the proponents and opponents of this ballot measure on their efforts. Because the measure failed there will be no change in the allocation of the sales and service tax.

Davenport Second Ward Election– Congratulations to Bill Edmonds for his successful bid for Davenport Second Ward Alderman. The vote was 934 for Edmonds to 852 for Cooper, with 15 write-ins.  All the candidates are to be congratulated for putting forth the time and effort to make our Democracy work. 

Review of Polling Places – Two of my staff members and I took the opportunity of this election to visit all 32 polling sites in Davenport. First, I introduced myself and the new Operations Manager, Roland Caldwell to election workers. Next, we assessed each site for the ease with which voters can access their polling places. Finally we assessed the set up of the voter assistance technology for compliance with the Help America Vote Act. My intention is to visit all of the polling places in Scott County to assess ease of access and the set up of the voter assistance technology.

ISAC Spring School of Instruction – A staff member and I will be attending the Iowa State Association of Counties Annual Meeting and Spring School of Instruction. We will be receiving information on new legislation before the Iowa General Assembly, updates on the federally mandated statewide voter database, and the Iowa Open Meetings and Open Records law. I hope to learn some of the best practices in the State of Iowa and possibly improve how Scott County provides access to records.