116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — After Cedar Rapids residents stuffed themselves with turkey and pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving feasts and scoured the web for Cyber Monday deals, eligible citizens had one more item on their to-do lists: Cast their ballots in the Nov. 30 mayoral runoff election.
With no candidate receiving the necessary 50 percent of votes plus one in the Nov. 2 city and school elections to avoid a runoff, voters had to return to their polling places or again mail in their ballots. But holding another election comes with a cost, both in terms of taxpayer dollars and voter engagement — and taking notice of this, recent candidates told The Gazette they support reconsidering the system that decides how local elected officials are chosen.
Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell won the mayoral runoff decisively, emerging as the top vote-getter. TrueNorth employee Amara Andrews trailed far behind. And incumbent Brad Hart was denied a second four-year term outright, not moving onto the runoff.
In the Nov. 30 race, 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.
In the December 2017 runoff, when voters elected Hart as the next mayor over former Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon, 17,594 of the city’s 87,126 registered voters cast ballots for a turnout rate of about 20.19 percent. Turnout was only slightly higher in the November regular election, with 17,661 voters participating for a turnout rate of 20.32 percent.
There was some speculation, though, that the field of eight mayoral hopefuls in that 2017 contest prompted some voters to sit out the first election and wait for the runoff, when only two names were on the ballot. Over 950 people who participated in the runoff had not voted in the regular election, The Gazette reported.
While the cost of the Nov. 30 runoff has not been finalized yet, Linn County estimates Cedar Rapids will incur $80,000, said Deputy Auditor Matt Warfield. The 2017 runoff cost was $85,708.65, with the city bearing $68,827.37 of that cost.
Noting the added costs and lower engagement this time, Mayor-elect O’Donnell said, “How do we flip both of those facts on their head? I think it’s going to require looking at an alternative, and I welcome that conversation.”
Campaigns carry a cost
Outwardly, campaigning seems light in the first several months. Candidates post on social media pages, quietly fundraise, rally volunteers and make appearances around town at the farmers market or other events to get their names out and connect with potential voters.
Campaigning ramps up in the last two months as voters begin in earnest to do research and yard signs go up to reflect their support. Candidates knock on more doors, hold events, participate in forums (almost a dozen this time around), circulate ads and make final fundraising pushes.
Ultimately, those three candidates raised $483,776.10 as they vied for mayor. Campaign disclosure reports show O’Donnell raised a total $201,290, almost one-third of that coming from the last four weeks after Nov. 2. That sum was not far behind the overall $201,702.47 Andrews raised. Hart raised $80,783.63 in his re-election campaign.
“You need a strong network, which helps you with your reach,” O’Donnell said. “It certainly helps you with your fundraising as well. From that standpoint, I'm not sure there's much we can do. … At the end of the day, the responsibility rests on the candidate and the community to get behind him or her.”
But O’Donnell said she thinks the amount of money candidates need to raise “makes this position inaccessible for a lot of people,” and the money raised by candidates and spent on election administration could be better used elsewhere.
She advocated for a commission to help set best practices and campaign guidelines — informally agreed upon by the candidates — including restrictions on fundraising amounts and where they raise their money from. Iowa does not have campaign contribution limits.
Most of Andrews’ money came from out-of-state donors, while O’Donnell raised the highest sum from Iowa and Cedar Rapids contributors. Andrews said she had success doing so in part because she has many ties outside of Cedar Rapids, having lived in other states including California before calling this city home, but was “severely criticized for that.”
This system “disadvantages people who are not in the majority,” Andrews said. “It makes it very difficult to have representation if you do not have generational ties in Cedar Rapids, if you do not have wealth centered here in Cedar Rapids.”
Although she was the top fundraiser, Andrews also advocated looking at campaign finance caps to “allow other types of people, not just wealthy white folks,” to successfully run for office.
Hart, too, took issue with the amount of money spent campaigning for mayor, a part-time role that pays about $39,000 a year. He raised $119,415 in his first bid in 2017 between the regular election and runoff.
“That was crazy,” Hart said. “To me, that was like, ‘Why do we have to do that?’"
He also supported earlier deadlines for candidates to file reports on campaign spending and fundraising with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.
Under state law, in cities without a primary election, a candidate for city office is not required to disclose fundraising and spending until five days before the general election, and five days before the runoff. The latter due date fell on Thanksgiving this year, so candidates didn’t have to file reports until the day before the runoff. In both elections, thousands of voters had already cast their ballots early by the time reports were filed.
“That’s something that, to me, would provide valuable, more important information earlier in the process for voters,” Hart said.
GOP-backed changes to state voter law this year shortened the early voting window. A runoff leaves the early voting time frame even tighter.
If Hart had sought a recount with only 41 votes separating him and Andrews on Nov. 2, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller feared that would leave little time to print ballots and allow for a full early-voting window, ultimately resulting in a small subset of people deciding the next mayor. Over one-fifth of runoff voters cast absentee ballots — 4,374 total.
It appears Cedar Rapids ultimately ended up with results that could have been accomplished with ranked choice voting, O’Donnell said, as people had to vote again — some for their second choice. Under that electoral system, voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots.
While she and the other candidates did not specifically endorse moving to a ranked-choice system, which would take a state law change, they did support exploring ways to improve the electoral system, considering this method among the options.
“Conventional wisdom said, I was endorsed by the mayor, so theoretically, his votes would be cast my way,” said O’Donnell, who increased her vote count in the runoff with Hart out of the race, to 13,484 from 11,023. “And without a doubt, I was the second choice for those voters. Wouldn't it have been great to do that the first time around?”
Hart said he recommended to Gary Streit, the senior vice president of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll who will chair the city’s recently appointed Charter Review Commission, that the panel members take up the matter as they review the city’s governing document and recommend potential changes to the City Council. The city charter calls for runoff elections in lieu of partisan primary elections.
The review group would likely be limited in its recommendations if there is no change in state law, but Hart said “that’s a topic that might come up.”
A better way?
Cities around the country have identified alternative electoral systems to decide their local elected officials.
The Des Moines City Council in 2020 opted to end runoff elections for city offices and instead set a one-election, winner-take-all model starting this year — largely as a cost-saving measure, the Des Moines Register reported.
But a number of cities, in states ranging from neighboring Minnesota to as far as Utah and New York, have embraced ranked choice voting for local elections — notably in New York City’s 2021 mayoral race. A record 43 cities have used this system in their most recent elections as of November, according to the not-for-profit FairVote.
Under this system, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, there are multiple ways to count votes, but most often an “instant runoff” decides the contest. 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.
The nonprofit Better Ballot Iowa is advocating for Iowa to adopt this system. Supporters suggest ranked choice voting solves some fundamental flaws with how Americans elect elected leaders and hold them accountable.
Advocates say ranking preferences encourages candidates to build broader coalitions versus energizing a narrow base to win a majority, and in turn discourages negative campaigning as candidates may need an opponent’s supporters to win.
This system “is a no-brainer” in cities with runoff elections, said Matt Wetstein, director of Better Ballot Iowa, because it gives municipalities the steps of a runoff without actually holding one.
“Runoffs are notoriously bad for turnout, and local elections in the first place are bad for turnout,” Wetstein said.
Utah provides a good model should Iowa move in this direction, Wetstein said. Its Republican legislature legalized the method in 2018 through a pilot program for municipalities to sign up and try, and 23 cities notified the state they would use the system in their municipal elections this year.
Any system changes have initial hurdles of potentially changing voting technology and educating candidates as well as the public, Wetstein said.
But “a very big problem of the resentment and anger that we see in American politics right now,” Wetstein said, is “that our election system leads us to vote against people rather than, ‘Who do you vote for? Who do you support?’” He thinks this system could help solve that issue.
Chris Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa political science professor, said it’s hard to know for certain how electoral system changes might play out in Iowa.
While ranked choice voting is gaining traction around the country, Larimer said system changes may be challenged by sharp partisan divides in the electorate about the integrity and fairness of elections after former President Donald Trump and his supporters promoted unfounded claims of election fraud to cast doubts on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 election win.
For voters, Larimer said there would still be questions of whether people have the time and resources to pay attention to politics — particularly if they must think differently about how they choose candidates instead of simply voting along party lines.
The possibility of moving to ranked choice voting gets at a fundamental question, Larimer said: “If you change the rules or you change the incentives, do you change a person's probability of voting?”
“If we value high turnout, in that we want everybody to be engaged in the political process, what do we have to change to get to that point? Do we have to change the rules, the institutions, including the structure of elections? Or is it more psychological and sociological in the sense that we need to change how people how people think about politics, how people view politics as part of their social identity?”
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