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New Procedures for Primary and General Elections Discussion with Michael Mauro

posted on May 23, 2008

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Borg: Election changes. A makeover in Iowa's election procedures are getting a first test in the June primary. A preview from the state's election commissioner, Secretary of State Michael Mauro, on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

On statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, May 23rd edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Change seems to be the buzz word in this year's elections. Most of the emphasis is on changing government but there are also changes in the way Iowa's voters will be expressing whatever government changes they want. June 3rd's primary election gives us a first look at those procedural changes. And that is a prelude, of course, to the November 4th general election. Now, for an inside look we've invited Iowa's Secretary of State Michael Mauro to the Iowa Press table today. It's good to have you here.

Mauro: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

Borg: And across the table statehouse reporters Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa and the Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Secretary Mauro, the June primary, as Dean mentioned, will be the first test for same day voter registration here in the state. What are you anticipating on terms of same day registration? Are you anticipating a flood of people showing up on Election Day?

Mauro: I'm not for June 3rd only because I don't think our turnout across the state is going to be anything spectacular and the reason why I say that is because if you take a look at our statewide ballot across the state you have faces that are unopposed both on the Democratic and Republican side. Our United States Senate on the Democratic side is unopposed, Tom Harkin. We do have a race on the Republican side. But mostly down the line in the Congressional races even though in the 3rd district here there's a race there's nothing out there on that ballot. So, we're going to really have to motivate people to participate in this June 3rd election but they will have the opportunity unlike they've ever had before and that is to register and vote on Election Day. So, it will be a good test for the county commissioners that put this in place because in November there will be a flood of people coming to the polling places to vote.

Glover: What is your thought about the primary turnout? How low will it be?

Mauro: Well, it's hard to speculate. I think it's going to be low because I've done elections for a long time both on the local level and the campaigns generate turnout depending upon where you're at. In this 3rd district here with the Boswell / Fallon race being the big item on the ballot, those campaigns are motivating people to participate. Are they working the early voting? I think they are. But notoriously in Presidential election years which were into this year the primary election ballot there's not much on there for people in the way of races. So, I think it's going to be relatively low turnout.

Glover: And you're a top election official but you're also a Democrat and you live in the third district. What side of that Fallon/Boswell thing are you on?

Mauro: Well, I have to be perfectly honest with you. Congressman Boswell has done an outstanding job in his position as Congressman. I've had a chance to know him. I think he'd be a tremendous choice for the people in that district. I watched Ed Fallon campaign for Governor, I have to be quite honest with you, I was impressed how he took his message out to the public. I think he has a good following there. It should be an interesting race but both of them would be good but I like Congressman Boswell.

Glover: One last primary question. It will be the first time for the Election Day voter registration. Some critics of that system warned that there was a potential for voter fraud when you have same day voter registration. What can you do to head that off?

Mauro: Well, I think we have a good same day voter registration program. We patterned it after the state of Minnesota. We've been doing it for about 30 years now and we went up there and visited Minnesota and both Democrats and Republicans have accepted it there and in addition to that I met with Representative King and we talked about same day voter registration and I pointed out to him, he had that same question, that we have some real good safeguards in there being that you have to show a picture voter identification card, you have to sign an oath attesting that you live under that polling place, the county commissioners are going to send notices out to follow up on those individuals and if any of those come back they're facing a felony charge, prosecution and fines.

Borg: I don't expect that I will be but normally there are Republican and Democratic representatives there from the parties who are just poll watchers. Will they be more active this time in challenging the anticipated ...?

Mauro: I don't know -- that will be interesting how that's going to play out.

Borg: How are you going to handle that?

Mauro: Well, when you come to the polling place and you're going to register on election day unlike regular voter registration in Iowa I think people should understand this -- our same day voter registration provisions and law that we have in place are actually better than what we have right now. When you go vote on Election Day and want to register at the polling place they're going to ask you for a picture voter identification card that has to be valid and have an expiration date on it. And then you're also going to have to show proof of residency whether it be a bank statement or whether it be a utility bill and then you're going to sign an oath saying that you are that person, you attest you're that person, you're not voting anywhere else with penalties of fines and imprisonment if you violate those procedures.

Glover: If that's so good for same day voter sign up why shouldn't it be that for voter registration?

Mauro: Well, our voter registration laws, the way they work now, I'll tell you, that's an interesting question because you can go both ways on that. I think that you have to take a look, we have to take a look at the voter registration laws that we have now and they're in place today where you can bring ten down for somebody, they can register, they can show it at the polling place and show no identification. It works, it's worked in Iowa pretty successfully and where I draw the line is at this -- we need to make sure that everyone gets to participate in the process. I'm a big advocate for participation and I also want to see integrity and security in the process but participation is important and the system seems to be working. Now, we sure can't put a cost and a price on voting so if we're going to require people to get voter identification cards, if we're going to require people to participate in this process, some type of identification process it can't be at a charge to the voter, that’s for absolute sure. So, I think the process the way it is works pretty good. I think we've answered some questions about security for same day voter registration with the photo identification card. And if you look at Iowa across the country we're kind of looked at as somebody to admire, that we do the process right here.

Henderson: You mentioned Congressman King, he was an advocate of a current state law which requires official documents in state government to be printed in English. A judge has ruled that voter registration documents may not be offered in other languages. How are you going to handle that?

Mauro: Well, we have decided after much consultation with the Attorney General's office and discussion with the Governor's office that our office, basically the Secretary of State, we made the final determination that we're not going to fill the process. We respect the decision of the court. I believe that there's some things that we can do within the judges ruling that would allow the parties, that would allow private entities to provide information as a guide to voters who don't understand the English language. I've always said that you have to understand English, it's the official language and we've never had any intention of violating the law whatsoever but we wanted to make the process as easy and accessible as possible.

Borg: You said earlier you expect a flood of people in contrast to a low turnout now the June primary, a flood of people in November's general election. Democrats have been increasingly registering more I think than the Republican Party. Do you think it's a Democratic year? I know that you, yourself, are a Democrat. But give us a preview.

Mauro: I think it's laying out to be a good year for Democrats. I really do think that. What happened in the caucuses, the turnouts and the amount of people that changed party affiliation, the number of independents who came over and decided to run as Democrats and just the general move of the country at this particular time points out for, I think, of course I'm a Democrat, I think good things could be on the horizon for the Democratic Party but you're going to have to play this out and just see how it all unfolds.

Glover: Let's talk turnout, you are the state's top election official, you have your handle on what's going on with the electorate. How big is the turnout going to be this year? It's a presidential election year. There was a record turnout of 240,000 at the Democratic side, a record turnout of 120,000 on the Republican side for caucuses. How big will turnout be in November?

Mauro: I think it could be record numbers, I really do. I think that you're going to see more participation than we've ever seen before. I think, you know, we have close to two million voters in the state of Iowa, we could see 70%, 75% turnout. Anyway, Iowa always is a heavy state for voter turnout in presidential elections so I think that we can see records.

Glover: What's driving it this year?

Mauro: Driving it this year is, of course, what always drives it, the presidential year helps. There's even a difference between the gubernatorial year and the presidential so the presidential year helps. Second part of that presidential year, no incumbent running for office. On the Democratic side you've had such a motivated campaign with all the Democrats and now with Obama and Clinton. A lot of young people which I've seen -- I always see young people engaged and they register -- but I see them more, I see them active. I think you're going to see -- when I talk about young I'm talking about 18-35, 18-40 where you're going to see more participation than we've ever, ever seen.

Glover: The definition of young changes as we go on, Mike.

Mauro: It does, we've got it under 40, pretty soon I'll want it to go to 50.

Glover: Let's talk about how much the interest in the caucuses, the fact that there was a campaign here before the caucuses ramped up interest in this year's election.

Mauro: Incredibly. Iowa caucuses are great, they're great for the state. I had a chance to attend a forum at Boston University at the Kennedy Institute of Politics where they brought secretary of states and journalists and scholars from all over the country to talk about the primary process and Iowa and New Hampshire, believe me, had targets on their back. But at the end of the day when it all got finished and over with the general consensus was Iowa is good and New Hampshire is good and what's happening even in the other states, South Carolina and Nevada are good things that are happening out there and Iowa is definitely a benchmark. You should have seen the other day what happened when Senator Obama came to town, what was there three or four thousand people on a day's notice at a rally there, same thing happened with McCain. You're going to see unbelievable interest here and I think the caucus process is responsible for a lot of that.

Henderson: You supported Hillary Clinton in the caucuses, there are those who suggest her supporters will stay home if Barack Obama is the Democratic Party's nominee. Do you buy that argument?

Mauro: I don't see it, no.

Henderson: Why?

Mauro: Because I think Democrats are going to come back together. Democrats are like a big family. I come from a big family and I see Democrats as a big family and you have disputes and discussions and disagreements but at the end of the day I think when you take a look at this it's going to be everybody wanting to see a change and I think Democrats will come together to see that they all work together to get a good Democrat elected.

Henderson: In your view does Obama need to do something to bring those Clinton supporters in? What is that something?

Mauro: I don't know. That's something I'm sure they're discussing. You're going to hear all kinds of interesting topics about an Obama-Clinton ticket or a Clinton-Obama ticket or whatever the case may be and how do you bring those two individuals together. I think it's important that does happen, though, I really do because I think there's a lot of committed people out there for Senator Obama and the same way with Senator Clinton and they all want to be together but they're going to be looking for the signals from the two candidates.

Glover: You were a Clinton backer. You've been around politics for a good long time. You watched this thing play out. Obama is now turning to the potential selection of a running mate. Is that race over? And if the race is over what responsibility does Senator Clinton have to end it and start putting the party back together?

Mauro: You know, what I've found out during this period of time just watching like everybody else is, is she is one of the most resilient individuals I have ever seen. I think people have to agree with that. And she is a spectacular candidate for office. And she wants to see it through to the end and I can't fault her for that. Just at the end of the day when it's over with and the determination is made I'm hopeful that everybody will get on the same bandwagon which I think will happen.

Glover: At what point will it be over then?

Mauro: I think it's going to be over here in early June, some time after that last primary June 3rd, some time in early June.

Borg: Did you see those same qualities in Hillary Clinton that you just mentioned when she was competing at the Iowa caucuses?

Mauro: You know, I did to a certain extent because I didn't make a commitment to the Clinton campaign until later on in December. But what I saw there was a spectacular individual who could articulate her position and she was comfortable around people. That facade of her being stiff and mean, it's not there at all. She was very, very easy to communicate with, she was very good. You've seen it and so has Senator Obama and so have all the other candidates. I have never seen a field of candidates, and you've covered it, like we had on the Democratic side and I'm sure the Republicans feel the same way, I just didn’t follow it as close.

Henderson: You mentioned getting on the bandwagon. Do you see any scenario by which Hillary Clinton is the vice presidential nominee of your party?

Mauro: I would like to think that could be a possibility, just personally. I don't know if that would play out. I think it would sure help the Clinton camp in accepting the fact that she's not going to be the nominee.

Henderson: Hillary Clinton has raised concerns about the caucuses, about the fact that people who work shift jobs are not able to participate. Some Iowans including Clinton supporters have begun talking about changes. As someone who is involved in the voting process in general do you think there should be changes in the caucuses whereby people be given absentee ballots?

Mauro: Well, I think the caucus process that we have here is good. That doesn't mean -- I said this all along -- that we shouldn't be trying to make it better. We should be working all the time to make it better. And we need to look at some of these things, the questions that were brought up whether it be Clinton or anybody else and some of those are accessibility to the caucus locations and then participation, how do we make it so more people can participate and still keep our caucus status. I think that's important that we do that and I think that we should be as a party, both the Democratic and Republican Party working towards why not make it better. It was spectacular, we need to make it better and one of the suggestions that a lot of people have, not me, but everybody has and the Clinton campaign brought it up and I'm sure the Obama campaign would feel the same way, how can we make it more accessible to more people and how can we accommodate those individuals who can't be there for that one or two hours that night.

Henderson: But it's a party issue, the state should have no involvement?

Mauro: Well, there's the deal and I have received calls from reporters all over the world during this caucus because they don't quite understand the process and it's amazing you have to educate the media on this, not so much the local media because they know, it's the media from around the country who thinks the Secretary of State has all this input into the caucus process like they have in New Hampshire and some other states with the primaries. But the caucus is a party function, it should continue to be done by the parties but they should be in consultation with the officials and state government.

Glover: And you are the state's top election official, you're also a Democrat. Iowa is first in the nation. Every four years there's a challenge to that. What is your responsibility as a Democrat, not necessarily a state top election official, to do whatever you can to keep Iowa first? And what’s going on with that?

Mauro: And that is one of the reasons I was invited to Boston to participate in the discussion and we're working hard from our standpoint in our office, even though we aren't day to day involved in the caucus process, to promote the caucus process the best way we possibly can. We go out and tell them why Iowa should continue to be first. We talk about retail politics and how it works in Iowa. We tell the story of Jimmy Carter. This year we had the story of Mike Huckabee. We talk about how people have to come into this state and sit face to face just like we are here articulating their positions by people who are passionate. I had a chance to go to New Hampshire during that Boston visit and I'll tell you, they're passionate people in New Hampshire and passionate people in Iowa about maintaining this first in the nation status and they want it. And so we're able to sell it. After we left Boston that day for that, we had that seminar there, I tell you what, I felt comfortable about how everybody felt about Iowa and New Hampshire.

Glover: Give us a status report. Where is it?

Mauro: To be perfectly honest with you, the future of caucuses in Iowa, in my opinion, depends upon the candidates. Once we get a candidate on the Democratic side, we have them on the Republican side, I think that they are going to drive, to be perfectly honest with you I can travel the whole country but it's going to be the candidates who are going to make this decision because they're going to take control of the party structure. On the Democratic side if that becomes Barack Obama I think the people of Iowa can feel tremendously comfortable about what the status is going to be in Iowa. I think John McCain has indicated, even though he didn't run real well in Iowa, he has indicated to people in New Hampshire that he thinks the process is fine the way it is and they are going to be the ones, I believe, who are going to make the final determination.

Glover: So, the same thing next time?

Mauro: I think it's going to be the same thing next time. That would be tremendous.

Henderson: As a member of the Democratic Party how do you view the Michigan and Florida dilemma for your party and do you have an opinion about how that matter should be resolved?

Mauro: I think the Michigan and Florida is very unfortunate and they could have put themselves in a tremendous position if they'd have just been patient and let the process play itself out because, let me tell you something, the people in Michigan, they are possessed with trying to figure out a way let's get Iowa out of this mix, let's get New Hampshire out of this mix and they are working every day, every minute to try to plead their case. I thought if they'd have been patient with the process they could have had a big role in this election. I do believe, in my opinion again, that the delegates will be seated, it will be after a nominee is pretty much determined on the Democratic side.

Henderson: Governor Culver moved the date of the caucuses forward and there was some debate about whether that was too close to the holidays. In retrospect do you think that was a good decision because actually people had more time over the holidays to go out and see the candidates?

Mauro: Well, I think it was a good decision because we had to make it to maintain our first in the nation status. I think that Governor Culver would have liked to have kept it on the original date. But because we had to deal with New Hampshire and we had to deal with Michigan and we had to deal with Florida we put ourselves in the position where we were able to keep it after the holidays and we can't criticize the turnout, that's for sure.

Glover: Did the Democratic Party act properly when it denied both Michigan and Florida their delegations and national conventions because they broke the party rules -- would you have supported that?

Mauro: I think that at the time, I bet they look back on it now, this is me again, I think they'd look at it differently. But at the time they thought they were doing the right thing. I don't think anyone anticipated us being here on May whatever we're at today with no candidate on the Democratic side and they thought everything would work itself out and now we're in the situation where the Clinton campaign could make a heck of a case for Florida and Michigan, putting them into the mix and where does that put them with the popular vote, so on and so forth. So, at the time they made the right decision but looking back on it I don't know.

Borg: I'm intrigued with the statement you just made and Mike has already asked you what are you doing to keep Iowa first in the nation. But after that you said Michigan and to a certain extent Florida and others are possessed, absolutely possessed at knocking Iowa and New Hampshire out. So, I go back and ask you again, are you doing something yourself actively that you haven't mentioned?

Mauro: We do the National Association of Secretary of States which is a group of Secretary of States across the country, they developed a plan that's about ten years old now that they're taking around the country and in that plan it breaks the caucus and primary process into regions, four regions, geographical regions that alternate every four years on who it's going to be going first and it maintains Iowa and New Hampshire in their first of the nation status. That has been endorsed by New York Times, various news organizations that think that is the right way for us to go and so I'm out as a Secretary of State and I serve as co-chairperson on the presidential primary committee with the Secretary of State in Kentucky and work closely with Bill Gardner who is the Secretary of State in New Hampshire to try to promote every day that plan or something similar. There is another plan that the Republicans just approved called the Ohio plan which is something we can live with also which has Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada.

Glover: When do you think this will be settled?

Mauro: I don't think it's settled until after we have candidates and we get new people in place. Again, we go back to talking about this and all the things that we can do. I think ultimately it's going to rest with the candidates of both parties and how they put this together going into the next year. Democrats are going to be after the first of the year for sure.

Borg: I want to take you back to Election Day now. One of the other changes the legislature enacted was to provide a paper trail for voting. How is that going to work at the precinct level?

Mauro: You're going to see it in November, it goes into effect for the November election. It's going to be something spectacular for the state of Iowa because it's going to make us one of the several states now, but we're right up there in the front end of this, that's going to have the same voting system and equipment for all the voters in the state. Our voters in Iowa are going to go to the polls on election day in November and they're going to fill out a paper ballot, they're going to color in the oval and put it in the optical scan ballot reader and everybody's ballot is going to be marked in a way which we have a paper count, the actual ballot that you can review so if you do get into the situation where you have recounts or contested elections you can re-create that election without any problem whatsoever. And thanks to the legislature both Democrats and Republicans in this session, they really came to the front on this to see that we put this in place in Iowa and it's going to, again, put us on the front end in the election process.

Glover: And how much is that going to cost?

Mauro: That's another great thing. The state legislature actually came to the table, and you've probably followed this, and allocated money. It's going to be about $6 million to the state when things are all said and done because they allocated some money last year, they gave some additional money this year so the $6 million and the $2 million, $8 million total will get Iowa on a system where everybody is using a paper ballot, everybody is voting on an optical scan. We're going to have accessible equipment there. The nice part about this is disabled voters are going to be able to vote just like everybody else is on ballot marking devices and we feel great about it. That's one of the great things that came out of this session by Democrats and Republicans in the legislature and the Governor put his signature on it.

Glover: Ultimately, county election officials are the ones who are in charge of making this stuff happen. Are you confident that by November or in time for November every county in the state is going to have this in place?

Mauro: We believe that they can because in Iowa right now, we have the 99 counties in Iowa, most of them -- there's two pieces of equipment that are used in each polling place as a result of the Help America Vote Act and it came about in the year 2000. Most of the counties are using optical scans now. As a matter of fact there's only 19 counties that use the DRE which is the touch screen. They have to change their equipment completely. So, the rest of the counties use an optical scan. All they're going to be replacing is that alternate piece of equipment that's going to be the ballot marking device, I call it the expensive pencil, that you put the ballot in and it actually covers the old one for you and you put it in the reader. So, we think we can do it and the counties have been so great about it, the county auditors and the legislature. The teamwork on this was quite amazing to me. I'd like to take credit for it but I think it was the hard work of a lot of people who made this happen.

Henderson: Election changes in regards to school board elections and to bond issues and other local votes were adjusted and you argue that saves county taxpayers money. How so?

Mauro: That's going to be another thing. That's been in front of the legislature the last five or six years. We were able to get it done this year and what's going to happen in school districts across Iowa is instead of having a school election every year in September it's going to move to every other year in the odd numbered year. So, starting in 2009 it's going to be 2009, 2011, 2013 and so on. So, we save one half of the cost right there from every year. And then secondly terms are going to change from three to four year terms. We feel it's spectacular. It's nothing new to the country. Iowa has always had this deal where they had a school election every year. If you'd take a survey across the United States that doesn't happen very many places. So, we just adjusted it to what the norm is.

Henderson: And you're also having quarterly elections for bond issues?

Mauro: That's the other thing that I'm excited about because as a former county auditor in special elections, we had special elections in Iowa almost every Tuesday and for a while there they were showing up with the unusual days and the second day after January or coldest day of the year they wanted -- a lot of elections were set up for nobody to show up to be perfectly honest with you. So, we have elections now that are going to be set that you'll know as a voter on that calendar four times a year there is a possibility of a special election, county auditors will know and be able to prepare, you'll be able to get election poll workers and, again, you're cutting down the number of elections. So, that's a substantial savings to the taxpayers and I think it's not going to hurt the voters so they're going to be excited about it.

Glover: You're overseeing a bunch of changes in state election law, voting machines and all that. What do you have for the next legislature? What changes do you see?

Mauro: Well, we're excited about what we accomplished. We accomplished that with the cooperation of a legislature and governor that made it work. But there's going to be some things that are going to be coming down the pipe and one of the things I think the media is going to like and the public is going to like in November of this year we're trying to put in place where we're going to be able to get election night results actually through the Secretary of State's office. This is going to be something we're working with the county auditors in doing so when you go on election night you can go to the Secretary of State's Web site or any county Web site and get those results as they're coming in. That's something we haven't been able to do in the past and we're confident and excited about making that available.

Borg: I'm sorry but I have to cut off because we're out of time. Thank you, Mr. Mauro.

Mauro: Thank you for having me, I appreciate being here.

Borg: Well, we close with a reminder, a program update actually. On Friday night, May 30th, Iowa Public Television is broadcasting a pre-primary debate between two of the three candidates seeking to represent the G.O.P. in the senatorial general election ballot as George Eichhorn of Stratford and Christopher Reed of Marion discuss the major issues considered in the Republican effort to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Tom Harkin in November 4th's general election. That will be live Friday, May 30th at 9:00 at night. I hope you'll watch. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.


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