If the city council candidates seeking your vote on Election Day were graded on their own voting habits, half of the candidates in Johnson and Linn counties’ largest communities would receive an F.
An analysis of voter profiles for 40 city council candidates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Coralville and Marion from 2007 to the present found that 20 of the candidates exercised their voting rights no more than 60 percent of the time.
The profiles were provided upon request from the auditor’s offices in Linn and Johnson counties. They document the elections in which voters have participated, although not how they’ve voted.
“On the face of it, it is pretty disappointing,” said Barbara Beaumont, president of the Johnson County League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization focused on informing voters, increasing voter participation and ensuring access to vote.
“I guess it didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t be voting in every election. I would guess that (candidates) who have voted very infrequently have a very specific issue they are running to accomplish, and they are not necessarily as interested in or educated in the governmental process as we’d like them to be.”
The next Election Day will be Nov. 5.
Some consider voting one of the fundamental rights of a citizen of the United States and executing that right a duty. Beaumont would argue that it’s not just a matter of voting, but first getting yourself informed about the candidates and issues.
The Gazette analysis found that one area where many of the candidates are weak is voting in elections for the very offices they are now seeking — city government.
In Coralville, mayoral candidate Matt Adam has voted in one city election since his voting history began in 1998. One of his opponents, Christopher Turner, has voted in two city elections since his voting history began in 1996.
“I assumed Coralville was on the right track,” said Adam, a lawyer who said he moved to the area for school and didn’t initially plan to stay. “Prior elections were uncontested. But as I learned more about local issues, I realized not only did I need to vote but to run for office to try to change things.”
Turner, a University of Iowa professor of communications science and disorders, offered a similar explanation.
“I always kind of figured Coralville government knew what they were doing and were doing fine,” Turner said. “However, when the bond rating of Coralville was reduced severely in the past few years, I started paying closer attention to City Council.”
Low voter turnout is nothing new, particularly in city council elections, which are held every two years. The last round of city elections in 2011 drew 14 percent of registered voters in Johnson County.
That year in Linn County, the city council election was paired with the special election for a state senate seat and drew 29 percent of registered voters — the highest turnout in a decade.
For voters looking at candidates, voting can be a sign of their investment in and knowledge about the community, said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at University of Iowa.
Some would argue it’s just one measure to consider, and a poor voting history doesn’t necessarily mean the person doesn’t deserve to be elected.
“It’s perfectly understandable if voters would use their voting behavior as a proxy for how involved they are in the community, how informed they are and what sort of stake candidates exhibit in the community,” Covington said, “but with a caveat that it doesn’t mean they are not committed or invested the community.
“It doesn’t blackball you. It is not a disqualifier, but it certainly is a relevant piece of information.”
Some of the candidates don’t believe a voting record matters.
“My view is, it is basically irrelevant in the minds of the voters,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who has the highest voting rate among Cedar Rapids candidates. “Voters would rather see candidates talking about issues that are going to affect the city in the next five years.”
Royceann Porter, a civil rights activist from Iowa City, voted 26 percent of the time in the 2007-2013 period analyzed, and she has voted in two city elections since she became a registered voter in Johnson County in 1997.
Porter said her voting record should have little bearing on her as a candidate.
“That don’t mean nothing,” Porter said. “Maybe it means I wasn’t interested in those running. I don’t think that has a reflection in me running. None whatsoever. ”
For many of the candidates who hadn’t been active at the voting booth, a specific issue inspired them to run for office.
Debt of nearly $279 million and a falling bond rating prompted several candidates, including Turner and Adam, to get involved in Coralville. In Iowa City, Rockne Cole, a lawyer, decided to run for office after opposing Iowa City’s plan for a 20-story high rise that didn’t include the New Pioneer Co-Op, which he and others wanted in the key plot downtown.
Two of the youngest candidates seeking office this year, Kingsley Botchway II, 28, in Iowa City, and Anthony Brown, 29, in Cedar Rapids, said as they’ve gotten older they’ve better understood the importance of local government and exercising their voting right.
“As to why my voting is a little sparse, I did not realize the importance of this,” said Brown, a staff member for Diversity Focus, who’s voted in seven of the last eight elections. “I don’t necessarily know if it’s a pro or con for any of us, but if you put it in perspective for my case, since 2010, I’ve been involved with everything.”
The youngest candidate in this election cycle, Logan Strabala, an 18-year-old running to be mayor in Coralville, hasn’t been eligible to vote.
Incumbents typically had the better voting histories.
In Cedar Rapids, which had the strongest overall voting habits, five of the top seven seeking your vote come November are incumbents, led by Corbett, who has voted in 90 percent of elections dating back to 2007. Challengers Robin Kash and Jerome McGrane join Kris Gulick, Patrick Shey, Chuck Swore and Justin Shields as the most regular voters.
In Coralville, sitting council members Tom Gill and John Lundell have perfect voting records, while the next closest candidates had a 65 percent voting rate. Iowa City’s top two candidates are incumbents Terry Dickens and Susan Mims with 74 percent voting rates.
In Marion, the highest voting rate is 95 percent by Mary Pazour, who is a challenger but served five terms on Marion City Council before stepping aside in 2009. Candidate Joe Spinks, who is serving on the city council, had the lowest voting rate for an incumbent at 50 percent.
Lundell said elected officials work with other arms of local politics, such as the school board or county government on the issues of the day, so not only are they informed but they also have a stake in who gets elected.
“We want to elect people we think would be best to work with,” Lundell said. “We tend to be more engaged and tend to recognize the importance of the election process and the outcome.”
Candidate Voting Record: Interactive Chart