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Iowa Republicans want to change how voters elect supervisors in Democratic-leaning counties
Proposed amendment would affect Johnson, Story, Black Hawk counties
Iowa Republicans have pushed forward a bill that would change how county supervisors are elected in three Democratic-leaning counties, including Johnson County.
The House on Tuesday debated a bill passed by the Senate that would require Iowa's five counties with 125,000 residents or more to elect their supervisors by equal-population districts, rather than being elected countywide.
Senate File 443, which was temporarily deferred, was amended in the House to instead only apply to three counties — Black Hawk, Johnson and Story — that are home to Iowa's three public universities.
Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, the bill’s floor manager, proposed the amendment as a compromise between House and Senate Republicans in an effort to narrow the scope of the bill “and come up with votes” to pass it.
Deyoe, who lives in Story County, said the change would allow more diverse representation on county boards and provide rural voters with a stronger voice in the state’s urban centers.
“I think it’s more democratic and it’s the way we’re elected to the Iowa Legislature for gosh sake,” Deyoe said during floor debate.
He said electing by district provides county representation that’s “closer to the people,” and that in the future lawmakers should look at requiring county supervisors to be elected the same statewide.
“But, at this time (I’m) trying to get the votes to at least get a start on this to start making this change,” Deyoe said.
Voters can choose representation model
Currently, counties can choose one of three ways to elect supervisors — countywide by district; countywide without district residence requirements for members; or from equal-population districts in which voters of each district elect a single member.
Black Hawk, Johnson and Story counties elect supervisors at large, without district residence requirements for county board members. Iowa's two largest counties — Polk and Linn — already elect by districts.
Lucas Beenken, a policy specialist with the Iowa State Association of Counties, said the association believes district and election decisions should be left up to individual counties.
“We think this should rest with the voters of each county to decide how they're represented,” Beenken said. “It's kind of a unique component where the voters actually get to decide how they're represented.”
The bill would also require counties to fill a supervisor vacancy by special election.
Democrats decry ‘politically convenient’ amendment
Democratic Rep. Ken Croken of Davenport decried the move as a "partisan power grab to only benefit the majority party in the upcoming county elections.”
Democratic Rep. Adam Zabner of Iowa City — home to the University of Iowa — argued the only reason Republicans amended the bill to focus on the three counties is because it was “politically convenient” for Republicans, who expanded their majorities in the House and Senate in the last election, “to take away power from the voters” in the Democratic-leaning counties.
Iowa Republicans dominated elections across Iowa during last year’s midterm elections. Iowa GOP candidates at the top of the ballot won in all but a handful of counties on Election Day, while support for Democrats continues to be concentrated mostly in urban areas.
Democrats represent a majority of county supervisors in Johnson and Black Hawk counties, whereas the three-member Story County Board of Supervisors is comprised entirely of Democrats.
Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green is a Democrat from Lone Tree. The town, located southeast of Iowa City, has a population of about 1,300, according to the 2020 census.
Green said he doesn’t think the proposed legislation would change the political makeup of the Johnson County board.
“A couple of us might end up in districts with one another,” he said. “That could affect the composition of the board in terms of the individuals but I don't think it's going to affect the partisan composition.”
Green’s biggest concern pertains to constituencies. As it currently stands, every Johnson County supervisor serves every Johnson County resident, he said. Under the proposed plan, the supervisors would technically serve their individual districts.
“I think that if the voters of Johnson County wanted us to use this representation plan, I would have heard about it somewhere,” Green said.
Bill will return to House floor
Democratic Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell of Ames — home of Iowa State University — said the bill erodes local control from supervisors and county voters, who already can petition to change how supervisors are elected via a ballot referendum.
“I am at a loss as to figure out what having an institution of higher learning or a regents institution has to do with county government,” Wessel-Kroeschell said during floor debate.
“This is simply gerrymandering,” Wessel-Kroeschell added. “This strips local control and at a great expense … to the taxpayers.”
According to a fiscal analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the cost to configure districts would be between $40,000 and $80,000 per county to cover training, additional precincts, ballots and mailing of new voter registration cards to eligible voters. The costs of special elections for a vacancy, according to the fiscal note, varies based on the size of the county — from $1,000 to $185,000.
Republican Rep. Brad Sherman of Williamsburg, whose district includes part of Johnson County, argued “a small community” of county voters “feel like their rights are not being considered, because the (county board of) supervisors happen to be dominated from the Iowa City area, and are imposing a plan on them that is really more for urban areas and they’re pretty much in the rural area.”
Croken argued Republican lawmakers are “stretching to make a case to create the need for a different set of rules for counties with regents universities.”
Deyoe moved to defer the bill due to the absence of some lawmakers, and because House Republican leadership did not think they had the votes for it to pass. But, he said he expects the bill be brought up on the House floor again.
Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau and Jami Martin-Trainor contributed reporting.
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