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Election Preparations: Secretary of State Michael Mauro

posted on September 26, 2008

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Borg: The count that counts. There are all sorts of counts during these fleeting pre-election days -- voter polling, absentee ballot request tallies, campaign days remaining. They're all in the mix. But everything culminates in actual ballots. We're discussing election preparations with Iowa 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.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, September 26th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Absentee voting, satellite voting, same day registration, ballot security all in a probable record turnout. That's the scenario Iowa's chief election official Secretary of State Michael Mauro is facing in preparing for the long awaited November 4th general election. Secretary Mauro, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Mauro: Thank you for having me. I enjoy being here.

Borg: You've got a big day coming up.

Mauro: We've had a big day and actually Thursday was the beginning of voting and it's going to work all the way up until November 4th so we've got 39, 40 days until Election Day and that's going to be a very exciting time in Iowa I believe.

Borg: You're already counting. You know the fellows across the table here. At the Iowa Press table Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press senior political writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Secretary, it's 39 days but who's counting. This is the first general election the state is going to go through with our Election Day registration law on the books. Given something like 92% of the eligible voters are already registered how will that have much of an impact?

Mauro: Well, it will have some impact -- that's a phenomenal statistic if you think that in Iowa 92% of the eligible people that can be registered are registered, that only leaves an 8% difference. But what happened in Iowa and happens across a lot of states you remember everybody had provisional voting and when people moved from one county to another county, which happens a lot, and they don't change their registration it's considered a new registration. In the past if they didn't get it taken care of before the deadline they had to come in and vote that provisional ballot. Now you can make those changes on election day, go into your polling place with the proper identification, change your address or if you moved from one county, you've always changed your address, but if you move from one county to another you can register and vote on the equipment like everyone else.

Glover: Critics of this law when it was being debated in the legislature worried about voter fraud. Are there any worries about fraud? And are you doing anything to prevent it?

Mauro: We believe that the legislature put in some great guidelines to protect the integrity of the process. One of the things we did we talked about the last time we were here for same day voter registration the picture voter identification card is a requirement and it has to be a valid document with an expiration date on it. They have to sign an oath attesting that they are that person. They are informed of the penalties that come with felonies, $7500 fine, imprisonment. And then the kicker to all this is there is a card sent out to that voter in a do not forward envelope because they know it's going to be coming and if it comes back from that address then it will be turned into the Secretary of State's office, the County Attorney's office and there will be some follow up.

Glover: So, the protections are there?

Mauro: We think they are. No system is absolutely perfect but we think this is a good one. We patterned it a little bit after Minnesota who has been doing it for years and we're one of nine states now that will be doing same day voter registration.

Borg: Mr. Mauro, with an anticipated record turnout and same day registration isn't that a recipe for long lines at the polls?

Mauro: Well, I wanted to explain that. General elections in a presidential year the voters have to understand that many people are going to be coming and I can say it from experience many of them show up at 7:00 in the morning before they go to work and many of them show up during the lunch hour, many of them show up right after work. You're not going to be able to walk in and walk out. This should be a process that could be done conveniently in a short period of time. There might be five, ten, fifteen minutes depending upon where you're at and what time of the day it is. But we've always had, even with same day voter registration, we've always had provisional voting and it isn't much different from that. If you came into a polling place under our old rules and you went to the poll book and gave your name and it wasn't in there that doesn't mean they sent you home, they sent you over to the other table to find out just why you might think you're registered, there may be some office error, to show why you should be allowed to vote. If it couldn't be determined that you were registered your voted what's called the provisional ballot. That was put in an envelope, taken back to the office and done later. The same processes are going to be in place but instead a lot of these provisional ballots we're going to have voters who are going to participate on Election Day.

Yepsen: Mr. Mauro, Iowa as you know, as we all know was hit by some bad flooding. What effect has that had on voting in Iowa and elections? Have you had to take any steps to deal with the consequences of these floods?

Mauro: Yes, as a matter of fact just on Monday we met with several counties, one hit real hard Linn County, the other Butler County with Parkersburg and the tornados and things like this, a lot of voters were displaced. They are living not at their regular residence. As a result of this there has to be some things done on the auditor's level and the county auditors I think are doing a great job with this, sending notices to those individuals, if there's new polling places where that new polling place is giving that voter the opportunity where they can still stay registered at their old address if they want to do that, if they want to register at their new address they can do that also. There will be notices posted at the old polling places if they're still standing up if they were to go there Election Day telling them where the new ones are. But I talked to Joel Miller who is the Linn County auditor and Holly Fokkena who is in Butler County who went through a lot of this and they're doing a great job of making the voters aware of the situation.

Yepsen: Is this turmoil created by the floods all over the state not just in those two counties, is that going to have the effect of depressing turnout in the election?

Mauro: Well, that question was asked Monday and I think that the answer that Joel gave, which I think is a good one, is we don't know how much it's going to keep them from voting but they might be voting with a different result depending upon where they're at in the situation because we were talking about June or July and now we're into November and one, are they distracted? Yes. Secondly, how do they feel about it? Are they angry? I don't know.

Yepsen: It might increase turnout.

Mauro: That's the deal. Will they show up? I think they do because they do in presidential elections.

Glover: And we're going to be shortly after the election heading into a new session of the legislature, presumably you're going to have some requests for the legislature, you had an elections bill this year. What have you got for the legislature this year?

Mauro: Well, not near as much as we had last year. We had for one reason or another a remarkable session in the legislature last year, we changed the voting equipment, we put in voting centers, we consolidated the school elections, we've taken the city special elections and put those into a calendar. So, we were quite ambitious hoping that a couple of those things would happen, they all happened. This year it's going to be more focused around the line of our I-Voter system. You remember the state controls the statewide voter database for all the voters, that's something that came up, the Help America Vote Act, we've been doing that through a company out of Oregon, we need to refine that, we need to determine how we're going to pay for it and that's going to be an interesting thing because that Help America Vote money is slowly going away. We've got to figure out how we're going to maintain this system to keep it working and how are the counties going to contribute, how is the state going to contribute. That's the number one thing. We've got a lot of minor issues that we want to take care of too.

Glover: A little minor issue that has come up from time to time is poll closing times. Iowa's poll closing time at 9:00 at night is one of the latest in the region. Have you considered moving it up?

Mauro: I've always thought and I've always been an advocate of access and availability and making the process as easy as possible. You can make a case to the county auditor on why are we there until 9:00 because at 8:00 it slows down, nothing happens between 8:00 and 9:00, you can show the cost savings. On the other hand as we've had this thing in place it's always hard to go backwards. If we stayed open until 8:00 there would be people coming in at 7:57. If we stayed open until 9:00 they'd come in at 8:57. The point of the matter is that accessibility I think is important and the chance for people to participate is important. I doubt -- and there's a lot of auditors that would like to see that move back, if that will go anywhere this session but I know that's one of their goals.

Yepsen: Another idea that keeps coming up is the question of shouldn't absentee ballots, the results of absentee votes be reported on election night? Some counties don't do that. Why don't we have a requirement in the law that says a county has to report all the results on election night?

Mauro: They're supposed to be. I don't think there's anything -- I'm under the assumption and I believe it's all the counties are reporting all of their results. Sometimes it takes counties longer than others to get those in place. But when you deal with election night that night a county says they have reported every precinct that should include their absentee precinct. A lot of counties that's the first one that comes in. Other counties wait to put it on at the end but I don't know, David, of a situation and maybe you're aware of something I'm not where absentee results aren't coming in somewhere during the course of that night to give us unofficial results.

Yepsen: As Secretary of State you are urging county auditors to make sure they post all those results that night.

Mauro: Absolutely.

Yepsen: Another issue is all these elections that we have, you try to reduce some of them but we have city elections and school board elections and general elections, why can't we combine them all together and have one election?

Mauro: That would be great. The issue with cities and general elections, they can work because the precincts are within precinct boundary lines. That old adage with schools is what creates the problem and that is where school boundary lines follow, they don't follow precinct boundary lines which means you can be in one precinct and Dean could live next door literally and he could be in another school district. So, the school district boundary lines they've even been noted to go through the middle of homes. So, it's difficult to put that part together without adding maybe two ballots in a polling place and then that becomes pretty distracting fort he voter and for the commissioner who's trying to put that together.

Yepsen: So, the city and the school can't be together but city, school and general could be. Are you recommending that the legislature do something like that?

Mauro: Take a look at the general election ballots if you get a chance and if you were to try to put city elections on with that, remember our general election ballots in all counties will be two sided this time, it's going to head off with your straight parties and then go to your president, your United States Senator working all the way down the county ticket. When you turn it over that's one side and that becomes difficult to fit on. When you turn it over you've now got the county hospital trustees and the agricultural extension councils, county conservation commission and then the judges. And then in some cases you have questions. Cities have been noted to put questions on the general election ballot or if you have a Constitutional amendment, which we do this year, those have to go on the ballots so now logistically how do you make that all work? The theory is great getting all these down to one election and I think we did something good, I know we did something good because school elections are going to be every other year and believe me, when we put this together the legislature I have to give them credit because they've been pushing this for years but they had to stand up against strong lobbying on this and the city elections they're going to be every other year too but the fact of the matter is the special election, those are the ones that we have every Tuesday for this type of tax, that type, they're going to be on a calendar basis and that will save us a bit.

Glover: Let's go back to absentee voting if we could. In the last election about 460,000 people in Iowa voted early in one form, fashion or another. I understand already you've got more than 100,000 people who requested absentee ballots. Is it a good idea to move increasingly to absentee and early voting or should we move back to voting on Election Day? And if we move more towards absentee and early voting are there changes in the law that need to protect and encourage that?

Mauro: Well, I think that absentee voting has grown, I know it's grown all over the country. We went through some real growing pains here in Iowa with it but I think that the voters are comfortable with it and once a voter feels comfortable with that process and they feel their vote is safe and secure and they understand the process I think convenience becomes a matter for people and they want to take advantage of that convenience and participate early. Now also understand the parties, the candidates, they have always wanted to get people to participate early, it's just one less voter they have get to the polls on Election Day. It's a big process, you know, early voting but it's not just big here, it's big across the whole country.

Glover: On Election Day this will be the first election where everybody in the state will vote on the same type of voting machine. Will that have an effect on how quickly results are reported? What does that do in terms of providing a paper trail should it be a close election?

Mauro: That's one of the best pieces of legislation that we put in place this year. Every county, the 99 counties will be voting on a paper ballot, an optical scan where you color in the oval, the alternate piece of equipment is called a ballot marking device which is there for all voters, particularly voters that have accessibility issues, sight impaired voters, people who can't read. I've had voters over the years tell me I can't even find the oval let alone color it in, it magnifies that ballot on there and it actually marks it. I call it the expensive pencil because that's what it is. It doesn't count anything. It marks the ballot and brings it back to you and allows the voter, regardless of what your disability, everybody votes on the same thing. And the great part about that is there is a paper trail, the voter integrity proof you're looking for. They can put this election back together, don't have to worry about what happened with the computer and all the computer theories that there could possibly be because you're going to be able to compare the paper against the vote.

Yepsen: Mr. Mauro, the discussion of absentee ballots brings to mind the fact that in some states, I think it's Oregon or Washington, they vote everything by mail. They don't have polling places any more. Why don't we do that in Iowa?

Mauro: It's been looked into. In Iowa we do something they don't do in Oregon and Washington, there was legislation changed a few years ago and I thought it was good but it costs the taxpayers money. With the absentee ballots now when you make an absentee request your county auditor in Iowa that ballot is mailed out to you at the expense of the county but we go one step further now. We're paying for the ballot to come back. So, it's a round trip on that absentee ballot. They went out, in fact, auditors went out and looked at Oregon, looked at Washington, I met with the Oregon Secretary of State and something has to come in very gradually. I think one of the nice things that made the legislature look early on was small cities, schools, where the turnouts are small. Now, imagine mailing out in the case of Polk County 270,000 ballots for that general election the cost and it comes back. But it has worked in Oregon they told me over a lot of years.

Borg: As long as you're talking about cost are there some things that you can see that you'd like to do to save money for the taxpayers in elections?

Mauro: Well, we think we did some things. We're always looking at different things. One of the things we need to make a decision on which is going to be a big part of our legislation this year once we get there is with this voter registration, statewide voter registration database. That contains the 2 million voters. We're presently doing that with a company out of Oregon, they're doing a fantastic job. It costs about $900,000 a year to maintain that. The Help America Vote Act was paying for that. That money is slowly being eliminated. We're trying to look at ideas, maybe how much can we bring in house, where can we save money that way and still maintain an accurate voter database that keeps the whole state process in place.

Yepsen: I want to switch gears completely here and talk about the caucuses. Both national political parties now have got commissions studying the caucuses for 2012. As you know, Iowa has been criticized for its caucuses and a lot of different procedures and there is some talk and are ideas floating around to try to improve the caucuses. So, I want to try to ask you about a couple of them, okay? Why don't we do absentee ballots at caucuses like they do in Maine so that Democrats and Republicans could vote by absentee? Let the guy in Iraq vote or the soldier in Iraq vote, the person who has to work.

Mauro: I don't have any disagreement with that. I think that we need to -- I think the caucuses are fantastic, they're great for our state, they work, we're the most informed voters in the country but I also agree what David is saying is we need to make improvements, we need to make it more accessible and I think the party has got to work that way and we've got to watch that fine line between caucus and primary. We've got our partner out there who has been very supportive of us, at least in the last election in New Hampshire, who wants to keep that first primary. But we can tweak these caucuses and I think they should be even with the crowds that they had this year and all the participation that they had there's all kinds of ways, that's one of them to make sure we get everybody to participate. There's other ways that we can do this too as far as the way the viability, you get a guy like Joe Biden who comes in here, works hard, spends lots of money and actually he that night don't even know what he had.

Yepsen: You're a Democrat. This is not an issue in the Republican Party. They do vote a straw vote and New Hampshire Democrats are saying we don't care if Iowa Democrats do a straw vote, they don't want us to have a primary in this state so how do you feel about saying to your party, you know, we really ought to just do a straw vote, forget all this delegate equivalence and viability stuff, let's just at least have an initial count that we report?

Mauro: I agree with you but I want to clarify that a little bit. I don't see anything wrong with that. But I do think you can still have these people who work hard here. I've seen the Democrats because I'm a Democrat, I've seen them come in there and work hard, put staffs together and leave that night don't even know what happened to them. You can do little things that you want but I still think you can have the delegates election and you can create viability standards and then you don't have this thing that happened in caucuses, maybe this is good or bad. The strategy is caucuses, David you've seen so much, is when the guy can't get there with viability and maybe he has ten people there and he's too short and can't get them and now all of a sudden somebody who has worked that caucus is working those ten and changing the whole make up when they didn't want to go there anyway.

Yepsen: Third idea, absentees, straw vote, third idea is change the night. Instead of a Monday night do it on a Saturday night. If you do it after sundown you wouldn't offend anybody's religious sensitivities. What about moving the caucuses to a Saturday night?

Mauro: Well, we didn't have it on a Monday this year. I believe it was on a Wednesday or Thursday. They're not locked into a night that I'm aware of.

Yepsen: But the argument is made that if you did it on a weekend night more people could attend, more people would be able to get off work, get a babysitter and would be able to attend.

Mauro: If that would be the case that's what we'd want to do. I have no objections to any of those things. I think those are all good ideas.

Glover: Some other ideas that have floated have been to not allow people to come into the caucus and register on the spot, to require them to be registered a little bit earlier. What do you think about that?

Mauro: Well, I don't know how much that affects the caucus. It would have reduced our numbers because let me tell you, you guys know what happened in January, people came that night and changed. You had to declare a party affiliation. We had many no parties who voted Democrat, many Republicans, the biggest gains Democrats have seen in a long time happened as a result of the caucuses and you have to declare a party somewhere. Now, remember caucuses are party functions, not state functions. If you're going to put voter registration parameters around this thing and then you're going to have to somehow have some way the parties can check -- I think you can get away without doing that but what you need to do is to make sure a person does come there and it's no fault of any parties, it's really not, they just got overwhelmed but when they do come in there that they're in the right precinct and have some way of checking that out. Now, when you've got 300 people in line and you're trying to get them through as quickly as possible those are some of the things when Dave talks about making improvements we need to make sure a person does come to the caucus, they do want to register, that they're participating in the process.

Borg: But you do have to admit it's a pretty informal affair. For all that is invested in campaigning coming up to caucus night it's a pretty informal affair with so much invested.

Mauro: Absolutely no question about it.

Glover: And the other suggestion has been that since it is such an informal affair there ought to be some kind of an independent outside observer, like a delegate in the county auditor's office could observe the process. What do you say to that?

Mauro: Well, I'll be honest with you, I can't sit here and disagree with what you're saying. I think they work great. The results, you guys see how fast they get -- I wish we could have got those results up that fast, they get the results up quickly. As far as the difference between that and the election we can't do elections like that. There is a period of time where there is a canvas, you're making the official results, you have to check your result numbers. Those things don't happen in the caucus and by the time they do happen New Hampshire has already taken place.

Glover: Speaking of New Hampshire, have you been speaking with the folks in New Hampshire about keeping a united front?

Mauro: Oh, absolutely. I fortunately got an opportunity to know Secretary Gardner there and we've had a great relationship. I had a chance to visit the state there and listen, I have never seen a more traditional man in all my life than the Secretary of State of New Hampshire. He wants to make sure that they stay the first primary state and he will help us any way he can to see that we keep the tradition. He keeps talking about the tradition and how important that tradition is. You have to go to New Hampshire, I went to New Hampshire last year and attended -- they do every year a big party and it's Democrats and Republicans and it's about the presidential primary thing they have there, they have a library, presidential primary library and this year I went there, I got invited to that and it was full, the place was full and in comes somebody from CNN and they always have two former candidates. This year Mitt Romney came back and Bill Bradley and what they did was say publicly I like New Hampshire.

Yepsen: I want to put a final point on Mike's question. The point is to have someone from the county auditor's office, like a poll watcher, actually administer the caucuses. You'd need two poll watchers, one in the Democratic caucus, one in the Republican caucus who are like they are on Election Day, in charge. Do you agree with that idea?

Mauro: Well, you're going that far now you're changing the whole shape -- now it's becoming a state -- somebody has to finance that.

Yepsen: Mr. Mauro, why wouldn't that be something worth the state paying for? These caucuses are in fact important to this state. Maybe it's time that the legislature starts spending some money to ensure their integrity.

Mauro: Well, again, all the points you're making are valid points. I've been there and watched that. If that's the direction that they want to go, the legislature wants to go and the parties wants to go that should be discussed. And if I get the opportunity I will discuss it.

Yepsen: So, you'll ask the legislature to be doing that?

Mauro: Well, the first thing I want to do is see what the parties put together and discuss with the parties on how they want to go and then it takes a lot -- one of the things I found out as Secretary of State you can have all the ideas in the world but if you can't get the legislature behind you and the Governor's Office is going to put his signature on that not much gets done as you guys know. I found that out and knew that coming in. But what you're saying needs to be looked at. I can't disagree with that. Now you're getting into how much should the state be a part of this and maybe the party should -- now you're getting into fine lines. Those things all have to be worked out.

Glover: And have you started discussions with either the Governor or legislative leaders about taking a look at some of these things?

Mauro: No, we have really not got to that point because basically we had the national parties met, we're waiting to see what happens. The Republicans, it was a big deal with the Republicans when they went down to their meeting and basically took it to their convention. It looks to me like Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina I think those are the states that stayed in place. I think an Obama presidency is going to help the Democrats immensely as far as keeping the Democrats in place. I think it's going to be important who the leader of that party is.

Yepsen: We've only got a couple of minutes left and we always like to talk politics. Take your election commissioner hat off and put your hat on as a good Democratic vote counter. How does this presidential race look to you in Iowa? Obama or McCain?

Mauro: Obama. The numbers have been there. I read the newspapers and follow the polls like you do. The numbers seem good to me. He had a great organization here, one of the best organizations you want. He flabbergasted me and when he told me that he was going to have 230,000 Democrats show up at the caucus I almost wanted to laugh but it happened.

Yepsen: Do you see any members of Iowa's congressional delegation as being in trouble for re-election?

Mauro: I think the best race that I see, there's two out there, but the best one I see is in the fourth district.

Yepsen: Tom Latham versus Becky Greenwald.

Mauro: I think that's up for a possibility. There's been a lot of good candidates who have run against Tom Latham and walked away with a defeat. I'm not saying anything about him as a congressman and his ability to get votes because he's shown that in the past.

Glover: In 2004 there were about 7000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Iowa. Right now there are about 102,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. What has gone into that? Is that strictly an Obama excitement from the caucuses?

Mauro: I think the caucuses is one part of it. I think the country and the mood of the country and you talked about going to caucuses and not being able to register on that day, I'm going to give most of the credit to this, if you look what happened at the caucus I think it was like 54,000 voters switched after the caucuses. I give most of that to the caucuses and then I think that people are all taking a look at we don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next in this country. I think Obama is the person, we just don't know how it's going to happen.

Borg: Let's go back to the caucus for just a second. You're a Democrat. What do you see as your role in keeping Iowa first? You've got to bring the Republicans in here too some way.

Mauro: I have the opportunity -- the National Association of Secretary of States has a committee that's called a presidential primary committee and we meet and go across the country trying to promote the process. I've had a chance to travel, I served as the co-chairman with the Secretary of State in Kentucky Trey Grayson and I worked with all the other Secretary of States and they had a plan out there that seemed to be endorsed by a lot of people where we had the regional primaries with the two kickoff states, Iowa and New Hampshire, we've been promoting that. If I get an opportunity to talk to legislators or people in the party I don't have a tough time expressing my feelings, they hear them whether they want to listen to them or not is another thing.

Borg: Thanks for being here.

Mauro: Thank you for having me.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we're talking with the candidates vying for Iowa's fourth district seat in Congress, incumbent Republican Tom Latham just mentioned being challenged by Democrat Becky Greenwald. You'll see our conversation with the candidates Latham and Greenwald at our usual Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.

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