Government

GOP increasingly putting stamp on Iowa elections

New measure would, for now, give Republicans top billing on ballots

Valerie Smith, elections outreach coordinator for Linn County, sets up voting booths Wednesday for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids. Early voting has begun for April 3 elections to fill a City Council seat in Alburnett and decide public measures in two school districts. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Valerie Smith, elections outreach coordinator for Linn County, sets up voting booths Wednesday for early voting in special elections at the auditor's office at the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids. Early voting has begun for April 3 elections to fill a City Council seat in Alburnett and decide public measures in two school districts. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Since taking control last year of the state Legislature, GOP lawmakers have been putting their stamp on how Iowa’s elections are conducted.

While Republican legislators say statewide rules on election practices are needed to address gerrymandering and enhance election security, Democrats and some local opponents argue the rules are yet another example of the GOP wresting power away from locally elected bodies and a bald attempt to gain an election advantage.

The latest election-related bill in the Statehouse, Senate File 2346, would require that ballots list candidates according to the party of the winning candidate in that county from the last gubernatorial election.

In 2014, that was Terry Branstad, a Republican, in 98 of 99 counties. Under the measure, that would mean GOP candidates get listed first on the ballot in partisan races in 98 counties.

Johnson County was the only exception.

Democrats are crying foul, calling it a blatant attempt by Republicans to gain an advantage.

“The way we do it now is not a good way. It’s up to the auditor. That doesn’t seem fair or non-partisan."

- Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Marion

 

 

But Republican supporters say they are trying to end a willy-nilly system where county auditors unilaterally decide how to list candidates.

“We thought this would be the fairest way to do so,” Sen. Jake Chapman, R-West Des Moines, said during debate last week.

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Sen. David Johnson, an independent from Ocheyedan, offered an amendment to rotate candidates. It was defeated, with Republicans voting against and Democrats for it.

Ballot placement may seem like a trivial matter to some, but some studies show it has an impact on the outcome of races, especially further down the ballot where voters have less information about the candidates.

“Except for a few high-profile, high-information races, the ballot order effect is large,” said the summary of a study of 2014 races in Texas. The study was published in 2016 by Darren Grant, an associate professor of economics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Other studies, however, differ on the magnitude of that effect.

“I just don’t like them meddling in elections they don’t know a lot about.”

- Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz

 

 

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, who recently changed his party affiliation from Democrat to no-party amid his push to make county elections non-partisan, said he has listed both Republicans and Democrats at the top of the ballot in the past.

Miller said he doesn’t feel strongly in favor or opposed to the bill, but said the goal should be a fair election.

“Statistically, there’s not supposed to be any real advantage to being No. 1 on the ballot versus No. 2. I know people would argue that it is an advantage of some sort,” Miller said. “If you really think there’s an advantage to that, then you’re compounding the power of one political party over another. Is that really what we want to do? Or do we want to keep the playing field level?”

Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Marion, argued last week the current process is biased because it allows auditors to give their own party top-billing.

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“The way we do it now is not a good way. It’s up to the auditor. That doesn’t seem fair or non-partisan,” Rizer said. “I’m not throwing auditors under the bus, because some of them flip the order. But others don’t. They always have the same party on top. So I’m looking for a way to make it more fair and less partisan.”

Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz, a Democrat, said she doesn’t believe the custom of auditors putting their party first has an effect on voters. “I think people know what they’re looking for,” she said.

She objected to the Senate bill, adding, “I just don’t like them meddling in elections they don’t know a lot about.”

Muscatine County Auditor Leslie Soules, a Republican, also said she doesn’t believe the order makes much difference. But she said she doesn’t have an opinion on the legislation.

At the same time, another bill working its way though the session, House File 2372, would remove counties’ authority to draw their own representation plans and force some of the state’s most populous counties to change their districts.

The bill would put the process of drawing representation maps for electing county supervisors into the hands of the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

It also would require counties with more than 60,000 residents to follow a “Plan 3” option — meaning there are no at-large, countywide seats but only ones were voters within a district vote for a supervisor who lives in that district.

Of Iowa’s 99 counties, 44 follow full district representation, or Plan 3. Another 17 follow Plan 2, in which voters countywide vote on supervisor candidates who must live within specific districts. And 38 counties vote at-large, meaning the candidates can live anywhere in the county.

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Ten Iowa counties — Black Hawk, Dallas, Dubuque, Johnson, Linn, Polk, Pottawattamie, Scott, Story and Woodbury — surpass the 60,000-resident threshold.

Of those, Linn and Polk — the two most populated in the state — already follow Plan 3, according to the Iowa State Association of Counties.

Dallas and Woodbury counties follow Plan 2, and the remaining six — including Johnson — have at-large seats.

If those bills become law this year, they’ll join other election rules passed last by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Last May, Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law changes to Iowa’s election rules that created voter verification procedures and shortened the time for early voting.

Under the voter ID requirement, which phases in starting this year, voters must provide proof of identity and residency in order to cast ballots.

Proponents of the new rules — largely Republicans — say they improve election security and integrity. Democrats argue the changes are expensive and suppress voter turnout, particularly among minorities and the elderly who may not have the most common form of ID — a driver’s license.

That bill also eliminated straight-ticket voting and reduced the early-voting period for requesting and casting absentee ballots from 40 days to 29.

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Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert, a Democrat, said the changes proposed in the current session and those passed last year have a potentially dangerous result — they could make elections more complicated for voters and lower voter turnout.

“It absolutely, 100 percent hinders us,” Weipert said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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