For too long, Iowans have submitted to the tyranny of the minority. Soon, you will have your biennial opportunity to disrupt that cycle.
Summer is the start of municipal candidate announcement season in Iowa. Campaigns are forming now, and the official filing period for city council and school board campaigns begins in August.
Many school board and city council seats in Iowa go uncontested. Even when races are competitive, most contests see turnout rates among registered voters far below the 50 percent to 60 percent range presidential elections tend to draw.
Even so, local government officials wield significant influence over our everyday lives. They are largely responsible for overseeing law enforcement, transportation infrastructure, utility services, land use regulations and more. They also set property tax rates, and sometimes sales tax rates.
Unlike Congress, city councils tend to move swiftly, unbound by the partisan gridlock and procedural barriers that have paralyzed the federal government. With fewer full-time staff members and special interests, institutional momentum is not as strong at city hall as it is in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, participation in local government elections is dismal. Out of frustration or apathy, most citizens have resigned themselves to being governed by their hyper-engaged neighbors.
Over the past six city election cycles, Iowa City has posted an average of just over 18 percent turnout. Similarly, fewer than 20 percent of Cedar Rapids’ eligible voters have cast ballots in recent mayoral or at-large city council elections on average.
Remember how James Madison and several of his notable contemporaries warned us that government power must be limited, or else an “overbearing majority” might deprive their critics of their due rights.
In the current year, Iowans face a converse situation. The segment of people who care enough to vote rarely exceeds a quarter, and sometimes dips to single digits.
The turnout disparity between federal and local elections is perplexing.
Sure, the federal government exercises enormous power over us and attracts an insufferable level of media attention. But the chance that your vote will determine the results of a presidential election are effectively zero. To do that, you would have to live in a state with enough electoral votes to swing a close national election, and the statewide tallies would have to be improbably narrow.
Your vote has a little bit more relative weight in a U.S. House or Senate election, but the winner will be only one of 535 in Congress, unlikely to save or sink any particular legislation.
In contrast, your vote is much more influential at the local level.
In 2009, several Iowa cities held referendums to impose local-option sales taxes for flood recovery projects. Iowa City approved the tax by a margin of seven votes, while neighboring Coralville rejected it by eight votes. Neither city exceeded 18 percent turnout in the special election.
One vote wouldn’t have swung those elections, but it was close. At the time, I remember lamenting that if I had knocked all the doors on my dorm floor, I probably could have rallied enough support to nix Iowa City’s tax hike.
Don’t let 2019’s municipal elections be your own lost opportunity. This could be the year you win a city election and take back your local government from the vocal minority.
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