The Week in Politics: What to Watch in the Caucuses, Voter ID on Trial and Budget Blame

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | January 29, 2016
Pennsylvania is one of two states that still has no budget, but more residents blame the GOP-controlled legislature than Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. (AP/Matt Rourke)

This was a busy week in politics -- but then, practically every week is. That's why Governing is offering this new weekly newsletter.

We won't cover the presidential campaign -- you can find plenty of that elsewhere. Instead, we aim to share with you the most interesting and important developments in state and local politics.

You can sign up for a free subscription here.

New Ways of Counting Caucus Votes

The political world is anxiously awaiting to see the outcome of actual voting in the presidential campaign, starting with the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Unlike primary elections, which are overseen by states, caucuses are run by state parties and have no automated voting system akin to stepping into a booth. Everyone just hopes state parties have learned their lesson since the last election.

Four years ago, the Iowa Republican Party announced on caucus night that Mitt Romney had come out ahead by a whopping eight votes, out of more than 100,000 cast. Subsequent recalculation, though, led the party to announce that Rick Santorum had actually won by 34 votes. The mix-up, which wasn't the only confusing caucus result in 2012, led to the resignation of the state's GOP chair.

Since then, state parties around the country have changed their counting procedures.

In Iowa, both the Republican and Democratic parties will be using a new app -- developed in partnership with Microsoft -- that lets precinct captains enter vote totals from smartphones. It should be an improvement from the old error-prone touchtone system. But just in case: "Our old dial-in phone system is still in place as a back-up," said Sam Lau, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party. Each party will also use verification software that flags anomalies, such as the number of votes from a particular precinct increasing tenfold from 2012.

In Maine, all the Republican caucuses will be held within a set timeframe this year. Back in 2012, the Maine GOP announced that Romney had won its caucuses before all the counties even had a chance to vote.

"A local caucus warden will be elected at each of those sites," said Rick Bennett, who chairs the Maine Republican Party. "We have a chief warden managing the entire process, hiring deputy sheriffs and off-duty state police to secure and transport ballots. We're operating essentially under state election laws."

At least one state -- Idaho -- has decided against holding a caucus at all this year and will hold a primary instead.

"From the party perspective, [running a caucus] was logistically very difficult, problematic and costly," said David Johnston, executive director of the Idaho GOP. "It's difficult to do what we're not designed to do. We're designed to encourage people to vote -- not to host an election."

Voter ID on Trial

A highly-anticipated trial regarding North Carolina's 2013 voter identification law got underway this week in a federal district court in Winston-Salem. Election law experts say it's the biggest test case regarding voting requirements since the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

In the last few years, many Republican-led states have passed laws that restrict voting. The North Carolina law, though, is considered one of the strictest. Aside from ID requirements, the law reduced the number of days for early voting and ended same-day registration. Those provisions were debated before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder last summer, but he has yet to issue a ruling. It's the photo ID requirements that are before his court now.

heard arguments about those provisions last summer, but hasn't issued a decision. It's the photo ID requirements that are before his court now.

Republican legislators argue the law is necessary to combat voter fraud -- a problem Democrats argue is relatively nonexistent. "If the rationale were to prevent voter fraud, it would focus on absentee ballots," testified Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin's Election Research Center. "The consensus is fraud is more common among mail ballots."

The Republican-dominated state also argues that opponents have uncovered "no evidence that any single voter will be unable to vote under the photo ID law." But an analysis by the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina found that turnout was reduced by "at least 30,000 voters" in the 2014 elections when the voter ID law was in full effect.

The lawsuit was filed by the NAACP and other groups, who argued at the trial that the law disproportionately affects minorities and that the state hasn't done enough to help residents adapt to the changes. Take Rosanell Eaton: a 94-year-old African-American woman who remembers being forced to recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution in the Jim Crow era and is one of the lead plaintiffs. To satisy the North Carolina law's requirements, she had to make 10 trips to various Social Security and Department of Motor Vehicle offices to procure an ID.

The trial is ongoing.

Odds and Ends

Challenger Outraises Governor: The governor's race in North Carolina is expected to be one of the most competitive gubernatorial elections this year. Certainly the money chase has been close thus far. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper announced this week that he once again outraised Republican Gov. Pat McCrory during the second half of last year, taking in $2.9 million to the incumbent's $2.6 million. Cooper began this year with $4.9 million in the bank, compared to $4.1 million in the governor's accounts.

It's Not Always Sunny in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania is one of two states, along with Illinois, that never managed to pass a budget last year. Not surprisingly, residents are not happy. Nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvanians say that government and politicians are the biggest problems facing the state, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll released Thursday. More people blame the GOP-controlled legislature than Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for the budget impasse (52 percent to 32 percent), but no one is looking good. Only a third of those surveyed believe Wolf is doing a good or excellent job, demonstrating a steady decline since polling in August and October, but only 15 percent now give the legislature positive ratings.

Republicans Tighten Control in Texas: Texas Republicans added to their already sizable majority in the state House with a special election win on Tuesday. In the runoff, Republican John Lujan narrowly defeated Democrat Tomas Uresti in a San Antonio district that had always been held by Democrats. Democrats will also have to defend a neighboring seat being left vacant by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon. Amid a battle with cancer, she announced Tuesday that she won't finish her term.