116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The group building a case for less costly, divisive elections in Iowa is working to expand outreach in Cedar Rapids and rally support around the state to pave the way for Iowa lawmakers to authorize ranked choice voting.
The City Council on Tuesday is slated to consider recommendations from the Charter Review Commission, which recently wrapped up the once-a-decade process of reviewing the city’s governing document and recommending changes to the council. The panel explored the implementation of ranked choice voting in place of the current runoff system, where a runoff election is held after the general election if candidates fail to receive at least 50 percent plus one of the vote.
The commission recommended trigger language that would direct the council to appoint a future panel, a “Limited Charter Review Commission,” to study whether to adopt ranked choice voting should Iowa lawmakers ever move to allow it.
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 supporters' second choices get redistributed as votes for other candidates. The process goes on until one candidate wins a majority, or whatever the threshold is for a multi-seat race.
Better Ballot Iowa, a nonpartisan group, homed in on the charter review process to make headway on advancing its goal of getting Iowa lawmakers to sign off on a bill authorizing municipalities to adopt ranked choice voting for local elections.
Though the commission has drafted its final report for the council, Better Ballot Iowa is not yet finished with Cedar Rapids outreach. The group has added a Cedar Rapids city captain to organize outreach efforts here and is planning a public talk soon with the Linn County chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Matt Wetstein, Better Ballot Iowa’s president, said cities in Florida burned bridges by outright adopting ranked choice voting before it was legalized, which resulted in a law banning the system across the state.
There was some debate on the Charter Review Commission of taking that route, but Wetstein advises against an adversarial approach and sees a path forward by rallying public and governmental support across Iowa, in communities of all sizes and partisan leanings.
“We think that this is an issue that we can get support across the state and across party lines,” Wetstein said. “We want Republicans and Democrats and independents behind us.”
Wetstein spoke with The Gazette recently about the group’s next steps.
Q: The Charter Review Commission is recommending trigger language to appoint a new commission to study ranked choice voting should Iowa lawmakers authorize it. What’s the next focus of Better Ballot Iowa’s advocacy now that the charter review process is over?
A: We’re very excited about the results. So I think the next steps for us are twofold. One is looking inward and digging deeper in Cedar Rapids. Building broader grassroots in Cedar Rapids is the one step. We see this actually as the beginning rather than an end of the process … We were hoping to take the momentum from this and really use it as an opportunity to do outreach within city government, and more importantly, to the public so that people know what it is and are interested in it.
… If we can build a critical mass of towns and communities that would benefit from this, we think we've got a strong case. The vast majority of Iowa towns and cities use either primaries or runoffs, and we know of other cities that are having problems that could be solved with rank choice voting.
For example, Cedar Falls is another city that very regularly has exhausting runoff elections. And a lot of cities it's more invisible because they have primaries, but primaries cost as much as runoffs. And the choice at the ballot box on election days is limited to two choices, and the people who determine those two choices are very often less than 10 percent of the electorate. So even for cities with a primary system, we think that switching to a ranked choice voting election where everybody can vote on all of the candidates in a single election would be both economical and something that the voters would like and appreciate.
We're hoping this next year to pick somewhere between three and five more cities that we're going to try to build a similar case and do a similar level of research to what we did in Cedar Rapids.
Q: What characteristics make a city a good opportunity for focus for your group to do that sort of research and advocacy?
A: (Ranked choice voting) works more for larger-scale cities. Utah used it in some cities where the vote counts were on the order of 2,000, 3,000 voters. That's a perfectly fine size. We're going to start more toward the bigger end because we feel like that's where a lot of the costs and resources are.
But we also we want to balance in terms of a cross-section of towns and cities that are reflective of the partisan mix in Iowa. We'd like to get towns and cities that are in very red counties, some blue counties.
We’re also looking for ... cities that have had particularly regular problems with the two-stage elections where you have close cases, situations where the winner of the first vote loses by a large amount. We're basically looking for cases like Cedar Rapids, where there are lots of examples of the two-election system not working well.
Q: Why should Iowa adopt it, or at least allow municipalities to do so? What are the benefits?
A: Politics has become so incredibly divided. In just the seven years that I've lived in Iowa, I feel that I've seen a marked change from a state that I would have characterized as very practical, and where people work together to a state that is starting to become as divisive and divided as the rest of the country. And we feel that a lot of that stems from how we vote. When we vote in elections, our voting system tends to put voters in a position where if you're not voting for any particular candidate, you're really voting against the candidate you don't want.
We support ranked choice voting precisely because it fixes that problem. It enables voters to be able to vote for candidates that they like, knowing that giving a vote to a candidate that they liked doesn't take their vote away from their next choice, or ... hand the election over to the person that they don't want. It better reflects the nuance of voter opinions, and it allows more candidates to participate in an election.
… Even at the local level, it's a huge improvement over what most municipalities in Iowa are using. And we feel that taking positive steps forward together is not only something that's becoming rare in American politics, but it's something that people are starting to believe is impossible anymore. We believe that better is possible.
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