Oct. 11, 2012

I. In Focus This Week

Election administration issues on ballot in several states
Fate of East St. Louis, Ill. elections board up to voters on Nov. 6

By M. Mindy Moretti

This year, some ballots, like those in Florida, are so long and filled with candidates and issues that elections officials are encouraging voters to vote early to avoid possible lines on Election Day.

The issues on the ballot range from gay marriage to gambling to ethics to tax levies. In several states however, the issues on the ballot are the elections themselves.

In Minnesota voters will decide whether or not photo ID should be required to cast a ballot in future elections, in Arizona voters will decide whether or not to revamp the state’s entire primary system and in Illinois, residents in East Saint Louis will vote whether or not to eliminate city’s election board.

Voter ID
While most voter ID issues are being decided in courts this year, in Minnesota, it’s the residents who will decide whether or not voters will need to show a photo ID at future elections in the North Star State.

And even though the battle is being waged at the ballot box instead of in the courtroom, it has proved no less contentious.

After two voter ID bills approved by the Minnesota Legislature were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton, former secretary of state and current state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer and other legislators proposed a constitutional amendment to require photo ID.

The proposed amendment moved fairly easily through the Minnesota Legislature to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot:

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?”

Of course just because this issue is being decided at the ballot box doesn’t mean that at some point a courtroom wasn’t involved. In July, the ACLU of Minnesota and several other organizations sued to keep the amendment off the ballot.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the amendment could appear on the ballot. The court unanimously ruled that the initiative was not misleading, but two judges did dissent on the grounds that “the ballot initiative is harmful and constricts constitutional rights otherwise.”

The amendment is supported by many Republican lawmakers and is opposed by a host of organizations — AARP, Common Cause, League of Women Voters, ACLU — , local governments like Ramsey County and individuals including Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Ritchie has argued that a voter photo ID law could end same-day registration in Minnesota because as written the law requires a voter’s eligibility to be verified before casting a ballot. He has also offered an alternative with the introduction of electronic poll books arguing that they would eliminate fraud—real or perceived.

Ritchie’s opposition to the amendment has gotten him into some hot water with Republican lawmakers who last week filed a complaint last week alleging that Ritchie has acted improperly as an elected official.

Ritchie has not commented on the complaint—which goes before a judge on Friday, Oct. 12—other than to say, in a statement “I continue to work closely with local elections officials to ensure that the 2012 General Election is efficient and accurate.”

Local elections officials have expressed concerns about the cost of implementing voter photo ID with the costs ranging in the thousands depending on the size of the county. A statewide survey of auditors put the overall estimated cost as high as $100 million.

In Becker County, Ryan Tangen, auditor-treasurer has said the amendment, if approved, could cost the county up to $500,000. The estimate includes costs for equipment needed to make the IDs, equipment needed to townships that currently vote-by-mail and electronic poll books.

Where the voting public stands on the amendment remains to be seen. In May 2011, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune conducted a poll where 80 percent of the respondents supported voter ID, but a more recent poll conducted in September found that only 52 percent of the respondents supported the voter ID amendment.

Top-two primary
After a protracted battle, voters in Arizona will decide whether or not to follow in the footsteps of California and Washington and begin using a top-two primary system.

In July, members of an organization known as Open Government Committee Supporting Prop 121 submitted more than 356,000 signatures from qualified voters (they needed 259,213 to qualify for the ballot) to put Proposition 121 on the November ballot.

Proposition 121 would eliminate the traditional primary system in the Grand Canyon State and create a top-two primary system for all previously partisan Arizona elections. In addition to essentially creating nonpartisan elections, the law, if approved, would also allow candidates to decide whether or not to list their party affiliation on the ballot.

According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Prop 121 could save the state up to $278,000 in reduced printing costs. However, the measure could also cost local governments up to $2 million in additional costs associated with primary elections.

While activists were busy gathering signatures, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Jan Brewer, attempted to craft an alternative to the initiative that would have kept an open primary, but forced candidates to disclose their party affiliation. Brewer failed to garner the support necessary for a special session to consider the alternative.

In mid-July a lawsuit with plaintiffs that included a League of Women Voters of Arizona, a former GOP lawmaker and a Libertarian Party activist was filed in an attempt to remove the initiative from the ballot claiming that it was “unconstitutionally broad.”

By early August the measure was before Maricopa County Superior Judge Mark Brain who ruled that the initiative was legally flawed and could not appear on the November ballot. In his ruling Brain said that because the initiative, as written would also ban the use of public money for elections that it violated a prohibition against constitutional amendments dealing with more than one subject.

Needless to say, a trip to the Arizona Supreme Court was in order and in mid-August the state’s top court ruled the initiative should go on the November 6 ballot.

But the battle didn’t end there. Late in August, Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said that one out of three signatures in the state’s largest county were invalid. The committee supporting the initiative sued Maricopa County saying officials improperly disqualified hundreds of signatures that should have been counted.

At the same time this lawsuit was in court, opponents of the measure were also suing saying petitions were circulated by unqualified circulators.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea presided over both cases and ruled that the initiative did in fact have enough signatures to make that ballot and that all circulators were valid.

One last-ditch effort to prevent the measure from making the ballot failed and proponents and opponents began campaigning heavily on the issue with pretty much all of the state’s major and minor political parties campaigning against and many others working in support of the measure.

Should the initiative be approved, the impact it will have on Arizona county elections officials remains to be seen.

“In general, we believe there are about 71 statutes that have to change during the next legislative session in order for us to implement this beginning on Jan. 1, 2014,” explained Karen Osborne, director of elections for Maricopa County.

Osborne said that should the initiative pass, there is nothing that county officials can do to prepare for the new process until these 71 statutes are changed.

Another unknown for county elections officials is how much implementing Prop. 121 would cost. Osborne said there could be some initial costs but then ultimate cost savings.

In addition, counties will have to figure out who to rely in as poll watchers—currently it’s party representatives, but Prop. 121 could change that. Osborne also said that filling vacancies, which has always largely been the responsibility of the party, will need to be sorted out.

“Nothing is insurmountable,” Osborne said. “But we’re in a holding pattern should Prop. 121 be approved.”

East St. Louis elections board
For the second time in less than year, voters in East St. Louis, Ill. will decide whether or not to abolish the city’s elections board.

According to media reports, almost since its creation in 1886, the board has been plagued by years of negative headlines claiming everything from padded voter rolls to “allowing” the dead to vote.

In March, a group called the East St. Louis Alliance for Change succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot that if successful would have abolished the city elections board.

At the time, the group alleged that the board had failed to monitor voter registration and absentee voting and that the residents of East St. Louis would be better served having the St. Clair County clerk run the city’s elections.

However, during the Illinois primary on March 20, voters voted overwhelmingly to maintain the elections board.

Members of the Alliance argued that the question as it appeared on the ballot, “Shall we reject the city election law of 1885?” was far too vague.

In August, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn approved a petition to allow the issue to appear again on the November ballot. The question as it will appear on November 6 is: “Should the East St. Louis Board of Elections be disbanded?”

McGlynn, in large part, placed the referendum on the ballot because no one representing the election board showed up in court to object.

Matt Hawkins, who heads the Alliance said that this time, he and his colleagues will work harder to explain what exactly people are voting for or against.

II. Election News This Week

  • A U.S. District Court judge in Pennsylvania ruled this week that reporters and photographers don’t have a First Amendment right to enter polling places during elections. In a 58-page opinion, Judge Nora Barry Fisher dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette against the Allegheny County board of elections and the commonwealth’s secretary of state. The paper and the county had twice come to an agreement to allow reporters and photographers into polling places, but Fisher disapproved of both proposals.
  • Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has said that she will not file an emergency appeal of the recent ruling blocking the required citizenship question on ballot applications that she advocates.
  • Misprinted envelopes and questionable language about postage has many Cuyahoga County, Ohio absentee voters concerned that their ballots may not be counted. According to the Plain Dealer, to alleviate past confusion, ballot envelopes are now printed with labels inside the yellow-highlighted fields voters are required to fill out, but on at least 45,000 envelopes the labels are too dark and leave little to no room to put information.
  • In other ballot news, about 60,000 Palm Beach County, Fla. voters may not be able to find the Florida Supreme Court race on their ballots because unlike all other parts of the ballot, no heading appears above the candidates. Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said the Arizona-based printing company made the mistake.
  • Add South Carolina to the list of states where recently introduced online voter registration has been wildly popular with residents. In the five days following DOJ pre-clearance, the site registered more than 25,000 users with about 17,000 registering for the first time and more than 8,000 updating their existing registration. In other online news, since Ohio began allowing already registered voters in July to update their existing information online, more than 106,000 people updated their information before the registration deadline this week. And the state of Georgia is set to join the online party after the first of the year.
  • And speaking of online voter registration, while it’s proved wildly popular with voters, things haven’t always gone smoothly on the administration side of things. In New York, which launched their system at the beginning of September, county elections officials are running into a problem of faulty signatures. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, digital scans of applicants’ signatures “are not as crisp as we are used to getting, and they could be blurry. They could be distorted,” Louis Babcock, Rockland County Republican election commissioner told the paper. “It could be brought into question by a poll inspector.” Should a ballot be questioned, voters will still be able to submit an affidavit ballot. In Colorado, that state’s online registration system was so overwhelmed with last minute registrations and updates this week that the secretary of state’s office had to double the number of servers running the site in order to deal with the load.
  • Bah humbug…that’s what I thought when I saw a holiday commercial on TV the other day (but hey, at least it wasn’t another political ad!), but then I read this. Because of how the elections calendar falls for certain municipal and school board elections in Illinois in 2013, elections staff will have to be on the job until 5pm on December 24 to accept candidates’ paperwork and petitions. According to the Olney Daily Mail, there are no provisions in the law to alter this date.
  • Personnel News: Celina City, Ohio Councilman Bill Sell will fill a seat vacated on the Mercer County board of elections. Laura Strimple has joined the Nebraska secretary of state’s office as communications director. Cora Sue Schwamberger was sworn in this week as the new deputy director of elections in Marion County, Ohio. There’s a change at the helm in Brookfield, Conn. Republican Registrar of Voters Jeff Dunkerton is stepping down; he is being replaced by Tom Dunkerton. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Tom is Jeff’s dad. Pam Bordenkircher is the new Coshocton County board of elections deputy director.
  • In Memoriam: Former Wyoming Secretary of State Joseph Meyer died this week. He was 71. Meyer was currently serving his second term at the state treasurer. In addition to serving as the chief elections official and treasurer, Meyer also did stints as the state attorney general and assistant director of the Legislative Service Office. “Joe cared deeply about this state and its people and always put Wyoming first,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a statement. “His legacy of service is unmatched. He will be remembered for his wisdom and his wit.”

III. Opinions

National News: Ex-felon voting rights, II; Electoral College; Mail-in voting; Voting rights, II; Election alternatives; Voter ID; Early voting

Overseas Voting: Ex-pats

Alaska: Polling places

Arizona: Top-two primary, II

Florida: Ex-felon voting rights, II; Voter registration; Voter fraud; Long ballots; Voting advice; Palm Beach County

Hawaii: Big Island clerk; Voter ID

Illinois: Voting machines; Voter ID

Indiana: Vote centers

Iowa: Voter fraud

Massachusetts: Voter suppression

Michigan: Citizenship question

Minnesota: Voter ID, II, III, IV, V; Secretary of state’s office; Ranked-choice voting

Mississippi: Voter ID, II

Missouri: Poll workers

Montana: Secretary of state race

Nevada: Ross Miller

New York: Early voting

North Carolina: Voter registration

Ohio: Election mischief; Jon Husted

Pennsylvania: Voter ID, II, III, IV, V

South Carolina: Voting machines; Voter ID

Tennessee: Voter ID

Texas: Voter ID; ‘Dead voters’

Virginia: Ex-felon voting rights

Washington: Secretary of state race; Top-two primary

Wisconsin: Absentee voting

**Some sites may require registration.

V. Job Openings

electionlineWeekly publishes election administration job postings each week as a free service to our readers. To have your job listed in the newsletter, please send a copy of the job description, including a web link to mmoretti@electionline.org. Job postings must be received by 5pm on Wednesday in order to appear in the Thursday newsletter. Listings will run for three weeks or till the deadline listed in the posting.