Derek Muller is a nationally recognized expert in election law at the University of Iowa College of Law, where he studies and teaches about the role of states in the administration of federal elections. In late October he submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a case that could drastically reshape U.S. elections, addressing the independent state legislature theory. But Muller doesn’t just understand election law from an ivory tower perch. On Election Day, he was a precinct chair in Iowa City, running a polling station inside the University of Iowa. The Conversation U.S. asked him to reflect on what it’s like to be both a election law scholar and an election worker.
You occupy a pretty high place in the world of election law scholars. But here you are, participating at the most basic level in an election and in our democracy.
I’ve worked as a poll worker several times in California and in Iowa. It’s just a remarkable opportunity to see boots on the ground, what the effects of the law can be in the day-to-day administration of an election. And it’s a very practical way of giving back to the community and participating 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 from previous ones you’ve worked?
Turnout was higher than 2021 in Iowa. But that was an off-year election. I think there’s been a return to in-person voting in a lot of places. Whether that’s because of COVID-19 or whether that’s because of changes to absentee ballot rules like those in Iowa, it’s not clear. Otherwise, it was pretty typical of how I’ve seen the elections run in the county before.
What was your precise job?
As a precinct chair, my responsibility is to make sure that I contact the other precinct election officials who are working the day. I collect the supplies the night before that we’re going to need for the election. I help set up and organize the precinct ahead of the polls opening and assign people to different functions. I troubleshoot any problems that arise from the other officials. We had an election observer in the room at all times from one of the parties, so they check in with me.
If there were problems I couldn’t solve, then it was up to me to contact our rover, essentially a supervisor who “roves” across six different precincts, or the county auditor’s office if other problems arose.
Did you get any sense from voters what they were thinking about?
Occasionally, some people made comments about the process because they were frustrated if they didn’t have the right ID or their ID was 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 how easy the process is, or they’re really grateful that these workers are spending 15 hours sitting there, so you get a range of statements from voters. I think people are always pleased to do their civic duty. They’re enthused to get a sticker and head out the door.
Was there something you saw that might inform your work as a scholar, or something that your scholarship informed in terms of what you did there?
I see how election officials have discretion; how the way they phrase things can have an effect on the voters.
If somebody doesn’t have the right proof of residency, for instance, it’s kind of discretionary what an election official does.
Do you say, “If you can go home and find your proof of residency and bring it in, that would be great. We’d love to get you registered today so we can have the opportunity for you to vote. But you know, there’s only two hours left in the polls being open.”
Or do you say, “I don’t think you’re going be able to get home and find that and get back, so we can have you cast a provisional ballot.” But if you encourage that they might fill that ballot out, and never come back to cure it, so their vote won’t count.
You’re trying to provide opportunities for voters to consider things that really give them a choice without driving them into a direction that can skew the decision-making. That’s really hard.
In that interaction, you have the power to make their vote more or less likely to count.
On the other side, as a scholar doing this Election Day work, I realize that we have these laws that we write and think they make sense until they play out on the ground. And then election officials are supposed to juggle things.
Can you give us an example?
You have the statutes on the books about proof of residency. For instance, if you’re trying to establish residency on Election Day, you need a utility bill, or a cellphone bill.
But questions arise where somebody who wants to vote says, “I have this statement from the university to my home address billing me for services” or “I have a health care bill” or a heating bill. Do these things count? You don’t have a lot of guidance there, and you’re trying to make your best judgment call.
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 in voters. What’s that like?
I like both. Writing academic works and articles is important. Writing big-idea amicus briefs to the Supreme Court is important, and I’m honored to have done a little bit of that. I don’t know that I’ve had as much influence as others have had, but we’ll see what the Supreme Court has to say.
But there’s no better way of seeing how these laws play out in the voting process than seeing it at the ground level. We have all these ideas about how elections work, but you can’t understand the law’s implications until you get there and see a lot of volunteers, a lot of senior citizens or retirees who are participating in running the process. And then there’s the added benefit of working in my community.
Did the political maelstrom in the rest of the country affect 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 spent by Republicans talking about the election process and the election system. And that trickled into the primaries in those states and in other states where there are senators or governors on the ballot. In Iowa, you didn’t have people who are openly questioning our election process.
What about recent concerns about many election officials coming from a partisan background?
Working with election officials, including our auditor in Johnson County, you learn how professional these officials and their staff are, and the care and attention they put into their work, year in and year out, to make these things run smoothly. They don’t want problems. There can be consequences for a poorly run election. People might not want you to serve in that job again.
In Iowa, they do a really good job of having bipartisan balance on every precinct. Whenever there’s anything involving tabulation of ballots, there’s always a bipartisan team at every precinct who’s involved in that. They do a good job of trying to eliminate some of the politics from the process. I think, for the most part, election officials want the election run as smoothly as possible, and they’re doing everything they can to that end.