Almost half of Linn County residents who signed a petition putting a local-option sales tax on the March ballot did not vote on the issue, according to a Gazette analysis.
The study raises questions about whether petitions — here or in Wisconsin’s high-profile recall election — accurately reflect public interest in special elections that can be costly to taxpayers.
“I probably just forgot,” said Dale DeHordt, of 9547 Kathryn St. SW, Cedar Rapids, about why he signed the Linn County petition but didn’t vote.
DeHordt isn’t alone.
The Gazette created a database of 4,292 people who signed a petition seeking a special election on the 1-percent local-option sales tax and matched that with nearly 31,000 people who voted in the March 6 sales tax election. The voter database does not say how a person voted, just whether he or she cast a ballot.
Only 42 percent of petition signers, or 1,809 people, voted in the March 6 special election. The bulk of the signers — more than 2,480 people — didn’t cast ballots.
The issue lost by just 576 votes in the Cedar Rapids metro area.
“If we had 75 percent turnout of people who signed the petition, it would have been a landslide (in favor of the tax),” said Mike Butterfield, a Cedar Rapids resident who helped with the petition drive. “That’s really heartbreaking.”
The Cedar Rapids Extended Sales Tax (CREST) group gathered about 4,900 signatures on a petition seeking a special election to extend the local-option tax for 10 years to pay for flood protection on the west side of the Cedar River. The Army Corps of Engineers has approved flood buffers for just the east side.
“The big question mark is what we will do with the west side,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said.
The tax extension failed 51 percent to 49 percent in Cedar Rapids — almost the same margin as a similar referendum in May 2011.
In Wisconsin, union supporters were furious over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining and gathered more than 900,000 signatures to force a June 5 recall election. Walker won by an even larger margin than when he was elected in 2010.
“In Wisconsin, almost one million people signed the petition, but many of them did not vote,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Signing a petition is easy, Burden said. Someone hands you a clipboard, you sign your name and you move on. You don’t even have to be a registered voter. But turning out for an election takes a deeper commitment.
However, petition signing does increase your likelihood of voting, according to Janine Parry, a University of Arkansas political science professor whose research of elections in three states showed petition signers had higher voter turnout.
“We’re talking about a 20-point difference,” Parry told The Gazette about her findings in a Florida municipal election. “Participating early on makes it more likely that the average person will come out and vote.”
While only 42 percent of Linn County petition signers voted on the local-option sales tax, this was nearly twice as high as the 22.4 percent of all registered voters who went to the polls March 6.
The most successful campaigns use petitions to create lists of people to contact by phone, email and direct mailings, Parry said. This is particularly important in an election, like the sales tax election, that occurs several months after the petition is signed.
Linn County voters might have had a change of heart after they signed the petition, said Lisa Kuzela, founder of the sales tax opposition group We Can Do Better CR. “If they were confused or not passionate, they don’t vote,” she said.
The CREST group did not maintain contact with most petition signers, Butterfield said.
“With some, yes, but that wasn’t a big part of our campaign,” he said.
Special elections can be very expensive. The Wisconsin recall is estimated to have cost city, county and state government more than $9 million. This doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars spent by candidates in the high-profile election.
The Linn County local-option sales tax vote cost $160,708, with $78,800 coming from the city of Cedar Rapids general fund.
Most states give citizens the right to petition for a recall or special election.
“You need something that provides for a midcourse correction,” said Iowa State University political science professor Mack Shelley. “It’s a safety valve in the Democratic process.”
Electronic petitions are gaining steam locally and nationally. The White House launched its “We the People” website, whitehouse.gov/wethepeople, last fall promising to respond to issue petitions with at least 5,000 signatures in 30 days.
Electronic petitions are not recognized by the Iowa Secretary of State for nominations or special elections, said Mary Mosiman, elections deputy. E-petitions would be much easier to validate and use by campaigns, but critics say they foster a lazy democracy without opportunity for discussion.
If expensive recalls become the norm, election officials might consider increasing the number of signatures required to force an election, said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa associate political science professor.
CREST was required to get 4,032 signatures, which was 5 percent of the Linn County residents who voted in the last general election.
But there may be better ways to gauge public interest, professors said. A government agency could commission a scientific survey asking prospective voters how they feel about an issue or a candidate, Parry said. This might be more accurate than a petition, but also more expensive.
“Democracy,” Hagle said, “is a messy business.”
Gazette staffers Max Freund, John McGlothlen and Christine Doty contributed to this report.