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Supervisors concerned auditor’s voter survey results skewed

By B. Adam Burke
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett sent 1,500 survey postcards to voters in rural and unattached voting precincts to assess opinions on current polling stations, should they be closed or consolidated.
At least two members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors were unhappy about the unscientific survey.
During a June 23 informal session with the Board of Supervisors, Slockett presented a packet that included a draft map, recent general election turnout by county and precinct, data on Election Day costs per voter in Johnson County, and the results of the rural survey that was sent to 15 outlying precincts.
Because of population shifts shown in the 2010 Census, voting precincts throughout the county and cities must be reviewed and adjusted if necessary. County officials and city councils must approve new precinct boundaries by Sept. 1, 2011, but new precinct maps won’t take effect until Jan. 15, 2012.
Slockett said he sent the survey to rural voters after the supervisors expressed an interest in receiving and discussing election costs for rural precinct townships. According to Slockett’s documents, election day costs ran the county $120,036 for the Nov. 4, 2008, presidential vote.
However, Supervisor Rod Sullivan took issue with the auditor’s survey method. “We’re only surveying rural voters but everybody’s paying for the elections, said Sullivan.
Sullivan told Slockett he was frustrated by the survey.
“I think you’re picking and choosing the statistics you want to skew it to the result you want,” he said, saying that Slockett had “fired an opening shot” by upsetting county residents before the board could even discuss polling sites.
“The rural people of Johnson County have been told one way or another that the evil board of supervisors wants to cut back on your voting options,” Sullivan added.
Slockett denied the claim, and later pointed out that, as commissioner of elections, he represented rural voters too. “I care about them and I care what they think about elections and their ease of voting, and I will tell you many of them feel that voting is much more difficult for them than it is for students and city residents.”
Slockett noted that supervisors could reset the precincts in almost any way they wanted, and his survey was just a way to gather information to help make precinct decisions.
The 15-precinct survey mailing was paid by a postage budget line item at the auditor’s office. Supervisor Janelle Rettig shared the board’s fiscal perspective, noting that Slockett had spent money to send the survey without board approval.
“We have a growing county and our budget can’t keep up with it and so we’re asking everyone to find efficiencies. Figure out how to save… we’ve had this discussion with almost every department head,” said Rettig.
She also questioned the auditor’s survey methods.
“You were willing to spend a couple thousand dollars to do what is not a scientific survey with questions that were tainted to the results you actually wanted,” said Rettig.
After mailing postcards to 100 random computer-selected voters in each of the 15 rural townships, the auditor’s office received 498 (33 percent) returned survey postcards. Of those respondents, 39 percent said they might not vote if their rural township polling places were closed. Sixty-three percent said they would find another way or place to vote if their polling site were closed. Some of the returned surveys also contained voter commentaries, which were included in the auditor’s packet.
Six townships– those with no town located within its boundaries or with a population of 3,500 or more– were not included in the survey.
Slockett’s office also presented the supervisors with a draft map showing redrawn precinct lines that shrank the county’s precinct total by one.
There was some discussion of satellite voting stations, and Slockett explained that satellite locations are beyond the control of his office, often required by petitions that get signed at local political party meetings.
Slocket provided extensive data on election costs, broken down by precinct, by township and by cost per voter at different voting sites.
Big Grove voters, who cast ballots at the Solon Public Library, cost the county just $2.34 per voter on Election Day 2008, the lowest in the county.
Clear Creek Amana precinct voters cost $11.77 per voter, second highest in the county for 2008. Lincoln Township had the highest per voter cost, at $12.68 per voter. Townships with smaller populations are more costly because even though they see a lower voter turnout, the polling site must still be staffed by at least three poll workers.
Cedar Township, the northeast Johnson County precinct which was proposed to be closed by Slockett’s office in 2003 because of accessibility issues, ran $4 per voter in 2008, near the middle of the pack for the county.
A minimum of three workers is required for each precinct on Election Day, but 18 workers were required at North Liberty’s first precinct (NL1) in 2008, the most in the county.
Overall, the precinct designated as NL1 was the most costly Johnson County precinct in 2008, at $5,303.72.
The Board of Supervisors took no action on the survey or voter information provided, but are scheduled to meet again on the subject in August.