Today marks 296 days until candidates in some Iowa cities can start filing paperwork for 2021 local elections.
It might seem premature to start thinking about the next election. Americans still are voting in the historic and contentious 2020 general election. Most folks are ready for a break from electoral politics.
This election has pushed political engagement to new heights. Even as we celebrate the turnout records likely to be set by day’s end, we can also lament that the choices on the ballot were just terrible this year. That’s why it’s time to start thinking about next year’s local elections — those don’t have to be such dumpster fires.
Many cities and school districts in Iowa suffer from a lack of competition or an extreme preference for incumbents. Maybe few newcomers run because the citizens are completely satisfied with their local governments, but I doubt that’s the case.
In Iowa City two years ago, the District A and District C seats went uncontested, allowing the incumbents to keep their seats without really having to talk to voters. Since then, both of those unchallenged incumbents, Pauline Taylor and John Thomas, have been the target of criticism by police reform advocates, like for when Taylor said the police union needs more say in the process.
In Coralville four years ago, the council race drew a large field with several candidates who were relatively new to local politics. Voters reelected one newcomer and two incumbents.
One of those incumbents went on to resign in disgrace this year after he said Black Lives Matter protesters are criminals.
In each of the last two election cycles, seven of Johnson County’s mayoral races had just one candidate on the ballot. The races draw some write-in votes, suggesting not everyone is pleased with their city leadership.
Most Iowans think of voting for president as a civic duty, but hardly anyone thinks of recruiting and vetting local candidates as their responsibility. In 2011, the last time Iowa City had enough candidates to necessitate a city council primary, just 5 percent of the city’s registered voters participated.
The result is that a small, self-selected group of local government insiders hold a tight grip on purse strings and levers of power and our city halls and school district offices.
Unlike in a statewide or 50-state election, one person can actually make an impact in a local race.
And unlike the badly broken system of federal policymaking, city councils sometimes are able to actually enact substantive policies.
City governments in Eastern Iowa right now are taking up big, important issues that will affect every resident and taxpayer.
Police accountability efforts could drastically alter the ways our laws are enforced. Climate action plans promise to change the kinds of homes we live in and our modes of transportation. Both of those issues and many others will determine how much revenue the city extracts from us through taxes and fees.
Maybe you have a neighbor in town who would bring a valuable perspective to those discussions. Maybe it’s you. The filing period for local candidates is next August. Get to work.
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