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Cedar Rapids commission lends support for ranked choice voting push
But concept faces uphill climb in Iowa Legislature
CEDAR RAPIDS — Members of the Cedar Rapids Charter Review Commission said Iowa’s second-largest city, with a recent trend of Republican mayors serving a Democratic-leaning city, should consider piloting a new way of selecting city leaders — once Iowa law allows it.
Commission members voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend language directing the City Council to appoint a new commission to consider the issue if ranked choice voting, which would avoid runoff elections, becomes allowed under Iowa law.
But while the concept has found a receptive audience in Cedar Rapids, it faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature. State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who chairs the committee responsible for advancing such bills, said he has no interest in changing Iowa law to allow for ranked choice voting.
“I’m always open to listening to new pitches, but I have no interest in ranked choice voting,” Kaufmann said Wednesday. “It doesn’t have a whole lot of traction in other states. And, as far as I’m concerned with Iowa’s current voting system … we keep getting record-breaking election turnout and I’m not inclined to change it at this time.”
More than 40 jurisdictions across the country used ranked choice voting in their most recent elections, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan vote-reform advocacy group. Just two states — Maine and Alaska — have switched to ranked choice voting for both statewide and presidential elections.
The once-in-a-decade Cedar Rapids charter review process offers an opportunity for city officials and a citizen panel to consider whether to change the way the city’s elections are run.
Commission members, though, opted not to go so far as to recommend the council adopt “trigger” language for the city to go to ranked choice voting if Iowa law is changed to allow it.
“It intrigues me and looks like it has a lot of validity, but I don’t feel like locking the council into something,” said panel chair Gary Streit. “We haven’t heard from people who don’t like it and what are the down sides. This is going to take a lot of study, a lot of input, a lot of public feedback, it seems to me, to really let the council make a good decision. … Our recommendation is when they get a chance, they really ought to look at it, because there’s clearly merit to it.”
Supporters say rank choice voting, also known as "single transferable vote" or instant-runoff voting, is less costly than a runoff election, results in higher turnout, discourages negative campaigning and leads to the election of candidates who are favored by a broader swathe of voters.
After a contentious and costly local mayor election cycle last November, Cedar Rapids three mayoral candidates have voiced support for exploring alternatives to the city’s current runoff system, including ranked choice voting.
“At a time when Americans have sort of become jaded about politics, we think that and we believe constructive change can be made to make representative democracy better for everyone,” Kehry Lane of Better Ballot Iowa told commission members at their Wednesday meeting.
The method allows voters to rank candidates by preference rather than selecting just their top choice.
If a candidate receives a majority of votes in a single-seat race after all the first-choice votes are counted, then the election is over and that candidate wins. But if no one receives a majority, the person with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated, and that candidate's voters' second choices get redistributed as votes for other candidates. The process keeps going until one candidate wins a majority, or whatever the threshold is for a multi-seat race.
Lane said Cedar Rapids has a history of elections where it’s clear ranked choice voting would have resulted in the election of a more broadly favored candidate.
He told charter commission members in the years when at-large council seats are only on the ballot, there is often a more than 50 percent drop in turnout — meaning a potentially different and often smaller group of voters than in a general election will be deciding the winner of a runoff election.
“This allows voters to vote their conscious without the fear of vote splitting,” Lane said. “And you don’t have to rank all of the candidates if you don’t want to. If you’re ambivalent about a candidate, don’t like a candidate, don’t mark them. Just mark your preference.”
Charter Review Commission member Dave Lodge questioned whether ranked choice voting upholds the “one person, one vote” principle, and said most Americans are used to casting one vote for one person per office, and the person with the most votes wins.
Supporters note court cases have shown that ranked choice voting keeps the integrity of the one person, one vote.
Others noted ranking candidates is far more complicated, but advocates believe it is fairer and more accurately reflects the collective will of the majority. Aside from saving time and money, supporters said ranked choice voting would lead to higher voter engagement, as it would become incumbent on voters to look into more candidates.
“When voters are engaged, when they have lots of engaging choices, when they feel like their voices are being heard, they’re going to show up,” Lane said.
While a legal path for allowing ranked choice voting in Iowa is unclear, commission members said they felt it important to advance the issue.
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Marissa Payne of The Gazette contributed to this report.