Writers Circle: Engaging voters in local elections

Albert Hood of Iowa City casts his ballot in the school board election at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Albert Hood of Iowa City casts his ballot in the school board election at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Earlier this month, members of The Gazette Writers Circle gathered to discuss this question: A fraction of eligible voters turned out to cast a ballot in this month’s municipal elections. How do we get more people engaged in local political decision making?

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Low voter turnout is not surprising

Jessica Welburn, Writers Circle

Voter turnout for the November Iowa City Council Election was only 14 percent. This means that over 80 percent of Iowa City voters opted to stay home on Election Day. While some have expressed alarm, the low voter turnout is not surprising for a number of reasons.

First, the consequences of local elections may not be entirely clear to voters. The plethora of websites dedicated to explaining the functions of a city council and a school board suggest that many Americans may have limited working knowledge of how their local government operates. In addition, local issues may not always seem relevant in contrast to national issues. For example, younger voters consume news differently than previous generations. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center shows that the majority of millennials get their political news from Facebook. As an avid social media user, I find Facebook and Twitter to be great sources for political news. However, most of the stories in my newsfeeds are about national issues. As a result, on a daily basis I find myself thinking much more critically about national rather than local issues.

Second, while progress has been made, our local officials do not reflect the diversity of our community. The overwhelming majority of our city officials are college-educated, middle class whites. This is a contrast to a city that is becoming increasingly diverse. Iowa City is certainly not alone. For example, the National School Boards Association surveyed school board members nationwide and found that 75 percent of school board members had a bachelor’s degree, 56 percent were male, 21.8 percent were African American and 6 percent were Latino. When candidates are from more diverse backgrounds and are engaged in outreach to different communities, turnout is higher. For example, turnout for September’s school board election was still low at around 10 percent, but much higher than in other years with no separate ballot initiative. Candidates like LaTasha DeLoach made a conscious effort to reach out to all members of the Iowa City community, helping to increase voter turnout and community engagement.

Third, while Iowa City has taken steps to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote, a recent study by the National Commission on Voting Rights shows persistent voter discrimination across the country. This can create a tenuous climate for some voters that may trickle down to the local level. For example, when I voted in the school board election this fall I elected to vote early at the Johnson County Auditor’s office. When I gave my name to the staff member to get my ballot, I found out that I had been flagged because I had failed to return a postcard confirming my address. I had registered to vote less than a year before the school board election and was frustrated that I could be flagged to be dropped from the list of registered voters so quickly. Adding to my discomfort, the staff member at the counter called over a coworker to assess the situation and demand my identification. As stories of voter discrimination began to fill my head, the staff members did not acknowledge a potential mistake or take any steps to reassure me that my vote was important and would be counted. While it may not have been their intent, I felt as if I was being forced to defend my right to vote. These types of subtle, negative experiences may cause some voters to stay home on Election Day.

In sum, we should not be surprised that voter turnout for the recent Iowa City Council election was so low. However, increasing community outreach, ensuring that community members from different backgrounds are represented in local politics, and improving the voting climate may improve turnout in the future.

• Jessica Welburn is an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of Iowa. Comments: jswelburn@gmail.com

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Take responsibilities seriously and use the opportunities we have

Nick Johnson, Gazette Writers Circle

“I am waiting for someone

to really discover America ...”

‑ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting,” A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)


On Nov. 3 Iowa City held an election of city council members. The somewhat unique existence of two slates of candidates, whose differences over issues were clearly drawn, might have produced a massive voter turnout. It did not.

Approximately 62,000 Iowa City residents are eligible to register as voters. Of that number only 45,000 do so (72 percent). But wait; it gets worse. In the latest city council election only 15 percent of those who bothered to register also bothered to vote.

My Oxford English Dictionary (1971) defines “democracy” as “that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state, in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege.”

Has America ever had such a democracy? Does it have one now?

We believe we can bring “nation-building” to others, showing them the virtues of our democracy. But it is they who assume the risks associated with voting, including in some instances death, stand in long lines for hours, and emerge from the polls with a proud smile and a finger painted purple.

Meanwhile, many Americans stay at home with their TV sets and video games on Election Day, only to have their faces turn purple months later as they rail against the evils of government.

Fact is, our nation began, not as a democracy, but as the plutocracy it remains today. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, it was John Jay who proclaimed that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

To ensure this result, voters were initially limited to males who were white, over 21, and owned land. This has been gradually expanded to include African Americans, those without land, women, and finally all over 18. Thus, those who own the country today have to govern it by choosing the nominees.

William “Boss” Tweed, of New York’s 19th Century Tammany Hall, is credited with having said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Today the nominating takes place in New York’s financial district, Wall Street, well to the south of the old Tammany Hall at 141 E. 14th Street. As Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein and his friends have said privately about Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, echoing Boss Tweed, “Those would be two very good choices and we’d be perfectly happy with them.”


But if the American poor, working poor, working class, and lower middle class were well-informed regarding their interests, registered, and then voted as a block, they could put their candidates in every elected position in the country, from school boards to the White House. That’s why it’s important to ask, “Who benefits, and who loses, when roadblocks are put in the way of potential voters on their way to register and vote?”

Voting reforms such as instant-runoff, ranked choice, or preferential voting would enable voters to vote for more than one candidate. Voting with both one’s heart and head would better reflect Americans’ true preferences. It would also breathe life into third parties, now usually excluded from participation by a Commission on Presidential Debates made up of the Democratic and Republican Parties’ leadership.

Iowans are blessed with laws and practices encouraging, rather than stifling, registration and voting. We are given the heady responsibility of playing a disproportionate role in the nomination of our presidential candidates. If anyone will ever “really discover America” it will probably be right here in Iowa. But only if we’ll take our responsibilities seriously and use the opportunities we have.

• Nicholas Johnson, an Iowa City native, has worked in every presidential campaign since 1948, was a congressional primary candidate, and participated in party organizations at the national, county and precinct level. He is the author of Are We There Yet? (2008) and the blog FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com. Comments: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org

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The right not to vote in local elections

Mark Neary, Gazette Writers Circle

The 15th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, designed to allow non-white men to vote, was passed in 1870. The 19th Amendment, designed to allow women to vote, was passed in 1920. Despite these amendments, continued efforts to deny people their vote resulted in protests, violence, and death throughout the nation for decades. Today, there continue to be efforts to limit the vote, either by establishing hurdles for people to register, or by limiting the places or times or ways that people can vote. Given the history to obtain the right, and ongoing issues regarding voting in America, it would appear that voting is important and significant. So why don’t more people vote?

According to the Johnson County Auditor, 12 percent of registered voters turned out for city council elections in Johnson County this month. September school board elections had just under 10 percent participation. By comparison, turnout for presidential election years is usually between 70-80 percent, and general non-presidential election turnout ranges from 50-60 percent.

It has been suggested that voting is not only a right, but an affirmative act of citizenship, and that those who do not vote are not fully engaged in society. In contrast, some argue that having few people vote in local elections is actually a good thing, because if the voters don’t want to be engaged in the process, then they shouldn’t be part of the decision. Negative ads show that people are more easily motivated to be against something rather than for something: the removal of the Iowa Supreme Court justices or the courthouse renovations elections are examples of this. Perhaps the issues in local elections are just not sexy enough.

Bernie and Hillary will campaign here, but they won’t choose where children go to school. Donald and Marco won’t decide which bike paths get funded. A few people, elected by a low-percentage of eligible voters, will decide that. Those same few people will oversee the collection and distribution of millions of dollars. Those same few people will oversee our garbage collection, and ensure that our streets are plowed after it snows. They will create new streets and new areas of development. They will choose the teachers who will help raise our children. They will protect us from crime and provide options for dealing with criminals. They will create a particular lifestyle for a community, whether it is centered on arts or commerce or education or other goals, stated or unstated. They will earn nothing (school board) to $55,000 (board of supervisors). They will be elected by less than a fifth of the eligible voters, and they will only have to keep a majority of that small percentage of voters happy to keep their positions.


In Iowa, as compared to many states, it is relatively easy both to register and to vote. It can be done in person or through the mail, on Election Day or in advance, and usually only takes a few minutes. Information about the candidates and issues is available through the media, through candidates themselves, and online through multiple sources. If a person wants to be informed, the information is available.

Perhaps part of the issue is the sheer number of elections. Unless a special election is required due to a person leaving office, it would seem to be easier to have all elections held at the same time as the general election. Why should we vote for school boards in September and city councils in odd-numbered years? It appears there is a core group of about 10 percent of registered voters who participate in all elections, but 5-8 times that many participate in general elections. Fewer elections could result in greater participation and fewer election costs, therefore saving money as well.

Many have been jailed, beaten, or killed to allow us to have the right to vote. Many still are denied the right. Choosing to avoid voting makes politicians less accountable to all, and more beholden to the few who actually show up at the polls. Voting should be taken seriously, and it should be exercised. Voting is not just history. It controls the present, and the decisions made by elected officials affect all of our futures.

• Mark Neary is a lawyer who practices primarily in Muscatine and resides in Iowa City. Comments: marknearylaw@gmail.com

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