Gazetitorial: Cedar Rapids can help put ranked choice voting on the agenda in Iowa

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
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In an opportunity that only comes around once every decade, Cedar Rapids is reviewing its city charter.


The charter establishes the basic rules for city government — composition of the city council, powers of the mayor and qualifications for the city manager, for example. This is only the second time Cedar Rapids has embarked on the review process since adopting a home rule charter in 2005. The commission will recommend changes to the charter, which the city council must either adopt or send to voters for a referendum.


Some of the new Charter Review Commission members have close ties to city government, which suggests this is not meant to be a slate of bold change-makers. But there is at least one issue where we hope they will give serious consideration to big changes — the city’s election process.


Cedar Rapids is one of relatively few cities in the state that holds runoff elections after the regularly scheduled November contest if no candidate in a race for mayor or city council wins a majority of votes. Even in the best case scenario, it’s a clunky system that needlessly drags out election seasons later into the year.


Our experience from last November shows why this option would be useful.

There is a better way to vote and we encourage commission members to consider it — ranked choice voting. The system isn’t currently allowed under Iowa law but that shouldn’t stop local leaders from starting a discussion about it.


Ranked-choice or instant-runoff elections have the same effect as traditional runoffs but they are conducted on a single ballot. In a race with three or more candidates, voters rank their choices. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is cut from the field and the tallying scheme repeats until one candidate has majority support.


Several other states are experimenting and there seems to be growing interest from across the political spectrum in alternative voting methods. In Iowa, however, the issue hasn’t yet received serious attention from policymakers.


Cedar Rapids has an opportunity to help put ranked choice voting on the statewide agenda. Our experience from last November shows why this option would be useful.


When no candidate won a majority in the Nov. 2 mayoral election, it went to a Nov. 30 runoff between the top two vote-getters, Tiffany O’Donnell and Amara Andrews.


Partisanship was a key theme in the non-partisan contest, with Andrews openly running as a Democrat and also trying to cast O’Donnell as an ardent Republican. That was borne out by their fundraising and spending — the Andrews campaign had connections to a long list of Democratic funders and operatives while the O’Donnell campaign too was doing business with a few firms usually associated with Republicans.


It seems likely O’Donnell would have easily carried the day in a ranked-choice scenario by drawing second preferences from most of Hart’s voters. It would have saved everyone the time and resources that go into holding an extra election.

This was all perfectly legal but voters have a right to know about it in due time. That’s where the real problem emerged: Because of the way the election calendar lined up with the Thanksgiving holiday, finance reports that would have been due the Thursday before the runoff were pushed to the following Monday, just one day before the final votes were cast. Voters likely would have been better informed if the process hadn’t lingered into the holiday season.


And it could have been even messier. In the general election, Andrews barely edged out former Mayor Brad Hart for a spot in the runoff election, besting him by fewer than 100 votes. If Hart had called for a recount, it might have delayed the already abbreviated early voting period.


In the end, the runoff wasn’t exactly a nail-biter. O’Donnell won more than two-thirds of the vote. She had already won a sizable plurality of the votes in the initial contest and she was widely seen as more closely aligned with Hart, who endorsed her in the runoff.


It seems likely O’Donnell would have easily carried the day in a ranked-choice scenario by drawing second preferences from most of Hart’s voters. It would have saved everyone the time and resources that go into holding an extra election.


The first step toward a different system would be for the Iowa Legislature to pass a law allowing local governments to adopt ranked choice voting. The Cedar Rapids Charter Review Commission could explore including language in the charter to say the city will adopt ranked choice voting when and if it becomes an option.


Commission members could also ask the council to establish some sort of task force that would engage experts and stakeholders to continue studying the issue and make further recommendations outside the decennial charter review process. Later charter amendments can be made by the council or proposed by citizen petition.


Unfortunately, the commission’s work is off to a late start. The timeline doesn’t lend itself to a robust discussion about the city’s foundational governing document.


The current charter only specifies that the commission will be established in 2011 and every 10 years thereafter and make any necessary recommendations within 12 months. In this case, though, the city council didn’t confirm commission members until late last November. The panel didn’t hold its first meeting until early February and most of the work is expected to be complete by late April.


The charter commission should consider clarifying its own establishment for future years. They could require the commission to be appointed by a certain date to ensure there is ample time to do a thorough review of the charter and consider plenty of public input. They should also specify a minimum number of commission members, which the charter does not currently include.


Even with the short time frame, officials say they are committed to seeking public input. Speak up now because you might not get another chance until 2031.