IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — In the weeks before Election Day, University of Iowa students will have a dozen places on campus to vote for President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney.
Residents in the heavily Latino city of Denison will be able to cast ballots at a Mexican grocery store. Those living in the Republican-leaning Des Moines suburbs will get to vote early at evangelical churches. And voters in the state's most conservative county, Sioux, will be able to make their picks at a small-town library.
Iowa is one of 32 states that allow early voting, and both presidential campaigns are trying to take advantage of an unusual state law that gives political supporters a big say in where the ballots are cast. As voting begins Thursday, the sudden profusion of conspicuously Obama-friendly or Romney-friendly polling places in this key battleground state will serve as a novel example of how the trend toward flexibility is morphing the tenets of Election Day across the nation.
Iowa's law allows anyone who gets the signatures of 100 county voters to choose a specific voting place in that county. Election officials must hold balloting at that site for at least one day in the 40 days before the Nov. 6 election. The law is apparently the only one of its kind in the nation, said Jennie Bowser, who tracks election law at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Both campaigns filed a batch of petitions before last week's deadline calling for satellite voting at locations carefully chosen to make it as easy as possible for their backers to vote.
"This is substantially more than we had in the last presidential," said Tim Box, an elections administrator in Linn County, the state's second-largest, which received 12 petitions from the campaigns. He is preparing to operate sites at a union hall, on three college campuses and at an African-American church in response to Obama campaign petitions and at Lutheran churches where voting was sought by Romney's backers.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Erin Seidler said the campaign is using the polling place petitions to target key parts of the electorate Obama needs to win: college students, Latinos in small towns and African-Americans in bigger cities.
"We are strategic in how we are reaching out to voters," she said.
Romney campaign spokesman Shawn McCoy said the GOP is also spotting polling places "so that more Iowans have an opportunity to voice their support for Gov. Romney."
In most states that allow early voting, state laws direct local election administrators to choose the polling places. They typically favor neutral sites that are accessible for the general public such as libraries and courthouses, as do Iowa officials when they pick locations on their own.
Iowa's petition law was passed decades ago to allow residents to seek early voting in counties where officials refused to set up satellite sites. But as early voting became more popular, partisans have increasingly gamed the process in a way that critics say calls fairness into question. About 35 percent of Iowa voters cast ballots before Election Day in 2008, above the national average of 30 percent.
"It's partisan chaos, which ought not to happen," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit organization in Houston that trains election officials on best practices. "I can't fault the campaigns for figuring out the weaknesses in the law and therefore capitalizing on it. But what that does for Iowa is it gives the election a skewed process."
The practice increased in 2010 and could intensify this cycle. In the midterm election, Republicans collected petitions for polling places at evangelical churches in Ames; two churches even opened polls during Sunday services, sparking criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. Officials in Johnson County, a liberal stronghold that's home to the University of Iowa, operated a record 27 petition-requested sites in 2010.
This year, Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett received a similar deluge of petitions seeking sites at the university's law school, residence halls, student union, main library and more. The influx of petitions has worried local elections officials, who say they cause last-minute logistical and budgeting headaches.
"I have long felt that the bar is too low to request satellite sites," said Slockett, recalling he was once forced to host a site on the stairwell of an academic building, the only place where voting could be set up. But attempts to change the law to make it harder to petition have failed.
In Black Hawk County, Democrats petitioned to open six sites on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls and one site at a black church in Waterloo. Republicans petitioned for voting at the American Martyrs Retreat House, which is operated by the Catholic Church, in rural Union township. The number of petitions is up significantly from four years ago, county elections manager Kyle Jensson said.
"We'll be scurrying to so many places," Jensson said.
In Denison, a city of 8,300 in western Iowa that is more than 40 percent Latino, the Obama campaign petitioned to require voting at La Jalisciense Tienda grocery store and in an empty former Mexican restaurant. Crawford County Auditor Terri Martens said she worried that non-Latinos who do not shop or eat at those locations wouldn't feel comfortable voting there.
"It seems like the purpose that this group is using it for is to yank one sector of the public out of the voting crowd and make it ultra-convenient for them," Martens said. "My job is to make it convenient for all voters. I'm having a difficult time with this."
Martens said she was also frustrated with the tactics the Obama operatives used to secure voting at locations they wanted.
"It was, 'If you do this and you guarantee us these days, we won't file any more petitions,'" she recalled. "I was like, 'Come on.' It was disappointing as a registered Democrat myself."