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Cedar Rapids panel exploring ranked choice voting if Iowa allows it
Proponents say it would avoid costly runoff elections
CEDAR RAPIDS — The panel undertaking a once-in-a-decade review of Cedar Rapids’ governing document is considering whether to recommend an overhaul of the local electoral system to do away with runoff elections and instead establish ranked choice voting, should it become allowed under state law.
Prompted by a contentious and costly local election cycle last November, the changes the Charter Review Commission may recommend to the City Council are intended to simplify voting, promote fair and nonpartisan elections and offer a solution to low-turnout, more expensive runoff contests.
Three hopefuls who had vied to be Cedar Rapids mayor previously voiced support for exploring alternatives to the runoff system, including ranked choice voting. Currently, a runoff is held if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote in the general election.
A majority of the three-person working group that reviewed Article III of Cedar Rapids’ charter recommended adding language to the document to switch to a ranked-choice system if Iowa lawmakers ever move to adopt it. The group also is recommending adjusting council member terms so the five district representatives would be voted on in one election year, then two years later the three at-large seats and mayor would be on the ballot.
Panel commissioner Monica Vallejo said that change aims to reduce confusion, especially among new voters, who may see candidates campaigning for a district seat but then don’t understand why they can’t vote on a representative for their district.
The mayor, an at-large seat and three odd-number district seats are on the ballot at the same time. Two years later, the two even-number districts and two at-large seats are on the ballot.
To elect district representatives and a mayor, the subgroup recommended using an “instant runoff” method of ranked choice voting. Under this system, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, but voters who chose that candidate as their top choice will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half the vote.
For at-large elections resulting in multiple winners, the group recommended the “single transferable voting” method — similar to “instant runoff,” but for multi-member vacancies. To decide a contest, voters rank all candidates. Votes are transferred if a candidate reaches a certain quota to be elected, or from the least-popular candidates — once eliminated in initial tallies — to other candidates based on the preference indicated by the voter.
Several citizens and members of nonprofit election reform group Better Ballot Iowa have written to the commission urging consideration of ranked choice voting. Advocates point to examples such as Utah, where the GOP legislature legalized the method in 2018 through a pilot program.
“We felt like our community should hold elections that feel fair to everyone and that feel like their voice is able to be heard, no matter who they are and how long they’ve been voting,” said commissioner Monica Vernon, a former council member.
Vernon, who ran for mayor and lost to Brad Hart in a 2017 runoff, said this system also would eliminate the need for a late November or early December runoff while people have “holiday brain” and are less inclined to engage in the civic process.
In the Nov. 30 runoff, 19,898 citizens voted — a turnout of 21.43 percent of 92,832 eligible voters, according to official results. That’s a drop-off from the 26,428 votes in the Nov. 2 mayoral race, when countywide turnout was about 28 percent.
Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell won the mayoral runoff handily, with more votes than she received Nov. 2 — indicating she was likely the second choice for many who supported Hart, the incumbent, as he endorsed O’Donnell. Amara Andrews trailed behind, but narrowly defeated Hart on Nov. 2 to proceed to the runoff.
Vernon said the recommended changes would help promote positive campaigning. Instead of putting down a rival, she said, candidates would have an incentive to focus on what they can offer voters, as they could secure more votes under the ranked choice method if they curry favor as voters’ second-choice candidate.
In the 2021 local nonpartisan elections, Andrews was criticized for running as a Democrat and sending a campaign mailer against O’Donnell, a registered Republican.
“Sometimes along with negativity comes real strong partisanship,” Vernon said.
Matt Warfield, the Linn County deputy elections commissioner, said the county would not need to update election equipment to implement ranked choice voting. It would need to acquire additional free software, and the company that provides it requires to be on retainer as a consulting firm during each election. That cost is between $2,000 and $5,000 per election, which is “pretty minimal” compared with the $80,000 cost of a runoff election, Warfield said.
The other hurdle would be educating voters on how to vote under this system. Election results could be delayed up to a week, and “the public might look at that as a potential drawback,” he said, but Vernon noted that would still be quicker than a separate runoff.
There are skeptics, though, of ranked choice voting.
Commissioner Dave Lodge, who is in the work group with Vallejo and Vernon, was not yet in support, noting the potential for “great philosophical differences” between the most- and least-preferred candidates.
“I’m not sure that I want the folks who are in the bottom group helping choose,” Lodge said.
Commission Chair Gary Streit asked why he would want his vote to be given to someone he “can’t stand.”
Members opted to further study the issues before deciding on a recommendation to send to the council by the June 30 deadline.
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