What an election law expert learned about running a polling station

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Derek T. Muller

  • Derek T. Muller is a professor of law at the University of Iowa.
  • his article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Derek Muller is a nationally recognized expert in electoral law at the University of Iowa College of Law, where he studies and teaches the role of the states in the administration of federal elections. At the end of October, he submitted a judicial amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a case that could radically reshape the US election, addressing the theory of independent state legislature. But Muller is not content to understand electoral law from the top of an ivory tower. On Election Day, he was precinct chairman in Iowa City, running a polling station inside the University of Iowa. The Conversation US asked him to reflect on what it’s like to be both an election law scholar and an election worker.

You occupy a fairly high place in the world of specialists in electoral law. But here you are, participating at the most basic level in an election and in our democracy.

I worked several times as a poll worker in California and Iowa. It’s just a remarkable opportunity to see on the ground what the effects of the law can be on the day-to-day administration of an election. And it’s a very practical way to give back to the community and participate in a way that can help voters at the most important points of their contact with the democratic process.

Did you see anything different this election compared to previous ones you’ve worked on?

Attendance was higher than 2021 in Iowa. But it was an off-year election. I think there has been a return to in-person voting in many places. Whether that’s because of COVID-19 or whether it’s because of changes to mail-in voting rules like Iowa’s is unclear. Otherwise, it was pretty typical of how I’ve seen elections play out in the county before.

What was your specific job?

As Constituency Chairperson, my responsibility is to ensure that I contact other Constituency Election Officers who work during the day. I’m picking up the supplies the night before that we’ll need for the elections. I help set up and organize the precinct before the polls open and assign people to different functions. I solve all problems that arise from other officials. We had an election observer in the room at all times from one of the parties, so they contacted me. If there were any issues I couldn’t resolve, it was up to me to contact our rover, essentially a supervisor who “roams” six different precincts, or the county auditor’s office if any other issues arose.

Did you get any idea voters what they were thinking?

Sometimes people have commented on the process because they were frustrated if they didn’t have the correct ID or if their ID had expired. And then there are the other people who were really excited – it’s their first time voting, they want to have a selfie, or they’re really excited about the ease of the process, or they’re really grateful that these workers spend 15 hours sitting there, so you get a range of voter statements. I think people are always happy to do their civic duty. They are excited to get a sticker and walk out the door.

Is there anything you saw that might inform your work as a researcher, or something your fellowship informed in terms of what you did there?

I see how much discretion election officials have; how the way they phrase things can affect voters.

If someone doesn’t have the correct proof of residency, for example, what an election official does is somewhat discretionary.

You say, “If you can go home and find your proof of residency and bring it, that would be great. We would love to have you register today so we can have the opportunity for you to vote. But you know, there are only two hours left before the polls open.

Or do you say, “I don’t think you’ll be able to go home, find this, and come back, so we can ask you to vote provisionally.” But if you encourage them to fill out that ballot and never come back to cure it, their vote won’t count.

You’re trying to give voters the opportunity to consider things that really give them a choice without pushing them in a direction that can skew decision-making. It’s really difficult.

In this interaction, you have the power to make their vote more or less likely to count.

Yes.

On the other hand, as a scholar doing this work on election day, I realize that we have these laws that we write and I think they make sense until they come to fruition on field. And then election officials are supposed to juggle things.

Can you give us an example?

You have the laws on the books regarding proof of residency. For example, if you are trying to establish your residence on election day, you need a utility bill or a cell phone bill.

But questions arise when someone who wants to vote says, “I have this statement from the university at my house billing me for services” or “I have a health care bill” or a heating bill. Do these things matter? You don’t have a lot of advice there, and you’re trying to make your best judgment.

In late October, you submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the independent state legislature theory. Less than two weeks later, you’re sitting at a table signing voters. How is?

I like both. Writing academic papers and articles is important. It’s important to write amicus briefs on big ideas to the Supreme Court, and I’m honored to have do that a bit. I don’t know if I had as much influence as others, but we’ll see what the Supreme Court says.

But there’s no better way to see how these laws play out in the voting process than to see it on the ground. We have all these ideas about how elections work, but you can’t understand the implications of the law until you’re there and you see a lot of volunteers, a lot of old people or pensioners involved in running of the process. And then there’s the added benefit of working in my community.

Has the political maelstrom in the rest of the country affected your polling place in Iowa?

In places like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or Michigan, there was just a lot of heat, rhetoric, and a lot of energy expended by Republicans talking about the electoral process and the electoral system. And that has carried over to the primaries in those states and other states where there are senators or governors on the ballot. In Iowa, you didn’t have people who openly question our election process.

What about recent concerns about many election officials from partisan backgrounds?

By working with election officials, including our Johnson County auditor, you learn how professional these officials and their staff are, and the care and attention they put into their work, year after year, to that everything goes well. They don’t want problems. A poorly managed election can have consequences. People might not want you in that position again.

In Iowa, they do a very good job of having a bipartisan balance in each constituency. Whenever there is something involving the tabulation of ballots, there is always a bipartisan team in each constituency that is involved in it. They do a good job of trying to take some of the politics out of the process. I think for the most part election officials want the election to run as smoothly as possible, and they do everything they can to that end.

Derek T. Muller is a professor of law at University of Iowa. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

Derek Muller sets up a sign outside the polling place on the University of Iowa campus on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

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