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Early voting stable, possibly up, despite shorter window

DES MOINES -- Despite a new state law that shortened the timeframe for early voting, Iowa is on pace to match if not exceed the number of early votes cast in 2014, the most recent non-presidential election.

With roughly the same number of early votes being cast but 11 fewer days in which to handle the demand, some county-level election officials across the state say the newly compressed timeframe has caused additional stress to their staff, while others say the impact has been negligible.

One piece of the robust elections bill passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature and signed into law by former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad was a provision that reduced the state’s early voting period from 40 days to 29 days.

The 2018 midterm elections are the first general election since that law was passed. And despite 11 fewer days in which to cast an early vote, either by absentee ballot or in-person at auditor’s office and satellite locations, early votes are being cast at roughly the same pace as 2014.

That has meant roughly the same number of early votes being cast in a shorter window of time, and some local elections officials are feeling the impact.

“It’s being felt in my office for sure,” said Eric Van Lancker, auditor and elections commissioner for Clinton County in eastern Iowa. “As I kind of predicted would happen, what we’re seeing here in Clinton County is we’re dealing with the same amount of absentee voters, just in a shorter amount of time.”

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

Wayne Merrill of Sioux City votes at the satellite absentee voting station at Long Lines Family Center in Sioux City, Iowa on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. Sioux City Journal Photo by Justin Wan

Van Lancker said in-person early voting has remained strong despite the shorter timeframe, so his office is seeing roughly 100 in-person voters daily, an increase of about 20 per day over 2014, he said.

“In the office, we’ve definitely felt it, working the counter with voters,” Van Lancker said. “It’s added stress on the staff.”

Van Lancker said he did not hire additional staff for this year’s elections, but will consider doing so in 2020 for the presidential election, when early voting is expected to be even busier.

Travis Weipert, Johnson County Auditor and president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, said his staff also is feeling the effect of more votes in a shorter timeframe. Johnson County voters already have surpassed early voter turnout in the state’s last midterm election.

“That’s why I ask people to be patient with our poll workers. We’re trying to get people through as quickly as possible,” Weipert said.

Other county auditors said they have been able to spread the additional workload; some hired additional staff in anticipation of the condensed early voting schedule’s impact.

“We hired additional staff that we normally would have for a midterm election,” said Jamie Fitzgerald, auditor for Polk County, the state’s most populous. “That’s something we planned for early on, knowing you’re going to get X (number of) early votes in a shorter window.”

And not all counties are seeing an increase in early voting. Auditors in Scott and Black Hawk counties, for example, said early voting numbers are projected to be down.

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz said a lack of contested statehouse races in the area may be part of the reason for lower early vote totals there.

Black Hawk County Auditor Grant Veeder said he thinks the tightened timeframe may be contributing to the lower early voting numbers.

“We’re looking like we probably won’t reach the same level that we had four years ago. We’re going to fall short of that,” Veeder said. “I can’t do anything but give you my best guess, but it would appear to me that the shortened window had something to do with it.”

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said the true impact of the shortened early voting period will not be known until after the election.

Pate, a Republican, initiated the legislation that ultimately contained the shortened early voting period, but that element was not his recommendation; it was added later by Republican state legislators.

“I’m not sure we have an answer yet on that. We’re going to have to wait and give it some time to work itself through,” Pate said. “That and the straight-ticket issues, those are both issues that you’re going to have to give it time to watch it, to see what it really does for an impact.”

Fitzgerald said the shortened timeframe also has forced campaigns to rework their early voting strategies. Campaigns like to secure early votes --- whether via the mail or in-person --- because it locks in the vote rather than waiting for Election Day. Securing early votes has played an increasing role in campaign strategy over the past decade.

Iowa Democrats in 2018 already have surpassed their 2014 early vote totals with three more days yet to tally. Democrats have held more than 50 early voting events during the early voting period, a state party spokeswoman said.

“Iowa Democrats have put in the work. We’ve known from the start that this election was going to be an uphill climb, so we’ve had our noses to the grindstone for the past two years to produce results like this: more Democrats energized for the Midterms than ever before,” Iowa Democratic Party state chairman Troy Price said in a statement emailed to the bureau. “I am incredibly proud of our campaigns and volunteers for the unprecedented effort they have put in to make sure that Iowans are heard at the ballot box this year, and I cannot wait to see the results of that work this coming Tuesday.”

Iowa Republicans are roughly on pace to post a similar early vote total as four years ago.

“Iowa Democrats are fired up to do one thing and one thing only: regain power in Des Moines and in Washington. If that happens, they will raise taxes and tear down the progress we have seen in Iowa and across the country,” Republican Party of Iowa state chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement emailed to the bureau. “Because of the stakes, we’re not taking any votes for granted. If Republicans don’t turn out, we could lose everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish over the last two years.”

Elections officials and political scientists say early voting numbers cannot predict an election’s outcomes, but can help indicate voter interest in an election.

Iowa early voting by county

“I think it tells us that the interest is high, potentially higher than it was in 2014,” said Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “And I think it tells us that turnout potentially could be up overall compared to the last midterm election. Beyond that, it’s hard to know.”

Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids contributed to this report.

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Energized by elections
GALLAGHER: 93-year-old volunteer flies flag for small Northwest Iowa town

CORRECTIONVILLE, Iowa -- Charlene Warren picks up a pair of Meals on Wheels boxes at City Hall in Correctionville on Thursday. She heads out for a delivery, placing the boxes in the back seat of her car, inches from eight political campaign signs she must post in yards and right-of-ways before Tuesday's election.

"It's getting kind of late for these signs," Warren says.

Turning to yet another election, Warren produces a sheet of paper featuring two signatures, one of them belonging to Warren herself. The petition seeks 100 people to sign before members of an school advisory committee ask the Woodbury County Auditor if a satellite precinct may be established at the River Valley School in Correctionville on Dec. 11, when the school district votes on the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy. The measure failed earlier this fall, 143 to 111.

"I'm on the committee," Warren says of the advisory group. "I think I'm there to represent the senior citizens."

She could be. Warren is 93. She could pass for 73. Maybe 63. She's got the energy of a community booster decades younger.

"I like my community and I'd like to see it continue to be strong," says Warren, who moved with her husband, John Warren, to Correctionville in 1966 as the couple purchased the Isbell Insurance Agency in town.

"Char," as she's known here, grew up in Belle Plaine, Iowa, and preferred small-town life. She and John had lived and worked for a few years in Des Moines as he finished his post-World War II education at Drake University while working for Allied Insurance. The couple worked and resided in Sac City, Iowa, from 1960 to 1966 before heading west for the opportunity in Correctionville, where both their children, Janet and James, would graduate from high school, known then as Eastwood High.

When John died at the age of 56 in 1981, Char could have relocated, perhaps to Ames, Iowa, where she resided during her days studying journalism and home economics at Iowa State University. Instead, she stayed put and continues to work on behalf of her adopted hometown. For years, she was a constant presence at meetings of the Correctionville City Council, where Mayor Nathan Heilman had been known to delay the start of the meeting until Char arrived and took her seat.

"Sometimes, they'll ask me for my thoughts on a project," she says with a smile. "I fly the flag for the small town."

When not delivering Meals on Wheels or stumping for a school vote, Warren can be found taking photos, making greeting cards, helping voters and exercising. She only gave up serving as a 4-H judge three years ago. "I was 90," she says with a giggle, "it was time for some younger people to take over."

During our interview in the council chambers on Thursday, Char opens the session by pouring coffee and serving an eclair. She spreads three burgundy leaves on the table as a seasonal centerpiece. Our talk covers the politics of polarization, photography, iPhones, economic development and more.

"This might make some TV people mad," she says, sending caution to the November breeze, "but I haven't watched TV in two years. I rely on newspapers and radio. I read and I listen."

She worked for newspapers at various points during her adult life, including stints in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in Temple, Texas, where she unknowingly contributed to a gaffe with the Daily Telegram. Warren laughs about a headline or a description of a group of three "towheaded" children she wrote about. The phrase was changed by back-room composers to a group of three "two-headed" children.

"They'd never heard the description of towheaded," she says, noting how that's the way blond children were often described years ago.

The voter-approved PPEL at River Valley comes on the heels of a bond being paid off by the district, one that realized the construction of the high school in Correctionville and the elementary school in Washta a couple of decades prior. This measure, which will raise $1.34 per $1,000 valuation ($2 per $1,000 valuation came off the books as the old school bond was retired) will likely see the purchase and installation of camera systems and door lock-down mechanisms. Additional projects include classroom modernization, and an upgrade to the heating-and-cooling system in an effort to reduce utility costs and more.

Parking lot, sidewalk and bus improvements have also been talked about by the committee, a group Warren cherishes for the way it includes and encourages the input of young people.

"I had no idea a bus costs $90,000 to $100,000," Warren says. "But we need them and we need them to keep our kids safe."

So, the 1943 high school graduate gathers her petition and her Meals on Wheels boxes and zig-zags through town, campaign signs in tow. The volunteer is ever circulating, flying the flag for a small town she hopes serves residents for generations to come.

Citizenship question on trial in battle over voting power

NEW YORK — "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

The question, due to appear on the 2020 census for the first time in 70 years, has spurred a trial starting Monday in which President Donald Trump’s administration is accused of trying to dilute the political power of immigrants and noncitizens by scaring them away from the once-a-decade survey.

The trial could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade or more, since census results are used to apportion U.S. congressional seats and divvy up the Electoral College votes that determine the winners of presidential elections. The data are also used to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal aid to states and localities.

The plaintiffs include dozens of states and cities that say the addition of the citizenship question is steeped in White House bias and hasn’t undergone the usual rigorous testing. The government says it’s an earnest effort to help minorities by improving enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"The purported reason for asking this question is nonsense," Justin Levitt, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said in an interview.

The impact of census data on American society is so broad and deep that adding a citizenship question in the current political climate, hypercharged by the president’s rhetoric, is like "detonating an explosive without testing the damage it could cause," said Levitt, now a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "That is wildly out of character for the Census Bureau, and wildly irresponsible."

The idea is that immigrants and noncitizens, spooked by Trump’s agenda, may decline to respond to the census out of fear that the data could be used by federal immigration agents to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the U.S. legally.

Hans von Spakovsky, a lawyer at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said it's a common-sense way to improve the national debate on immigration that has been raging for over a decade.

"If you want to have an informed debate about that, then you need accurate data about how many noncitizens are in the country, and the only way we’re going to get that is to put the question back on the census," von Spakovsky said. "The first president who recommended it was Thomas Jefferson, and they put it on the 1820 census."

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, will oversee the two-week trial in Manhattan without a jury. The outcome could give either Democrats or Republicans an edge as soon as 2021 and through at least 2031, just after the next decennial census. Given the stakes, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is all but inevitable.

Central to the case are Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department houses the Census Bureau, and his interactions with Trump’s anti-immigration associates and aides after the 2016 election. They include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was on Trump’s failed voter-fraud commission, and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Ross initially said he added the question to the census this past March after a request from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department, which told him the information would help the agency enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Plaintiffs led by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who sued in April, say the plan to revive the citizenship question was always intended to depress the census response from Democratic-leaning immigrants.

The states and cities, in a pretrial brief outlining their case, point to evidence that the question was proposed internally in late January 2017, the first month of Trump’s presidency, in a draft executive order about immigration — and long before the Justice Department brought up the Voting Rights Act.

The draft included "anti-immigrant provisions targeting illegal entries, visa overstays and unlawful employment" and made no mention of the voting law, the plaintiffs said in their filing. Ross, who was appointed in February 2017, first heard about the proposed query from Bannon and Kobach, they wrote, arguing that the two "were expressly motivated by a desire to stem the political power of immigrant communities of color."

Ross overruled the Census Bureau’s own experts, who opposed adding the question "because it would lead to lower-quality citizenship data at higher cost and increased burden," the plaintiffs say.

The U.S. claims the states and cities won’t be able to prove any of that at trial.

"There is no evidence to demonstrate that the secretary acted in bad faith and did not actually believe the rationale set forth in his decision," the U.S. said in its filing. "Plaintiffs can only resort to unrelated innuendos."

Whatever Ross’ motives, the citizenship question could well lead to an undercount of some ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and Asians, who live in households with a greater percentage of noncitizens and may fear the consequences of checking the box, said William Frey, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and an expert on the census.