IOWA CITY —
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.