Linn Auditor Miller says Cedar Rapids runoffs bad idea that needs to change

Less than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters may cast ballots in Tuesday’s election

Rick Smith
Published: December 2 2013 | 2:52 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:22 am in
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Sufficiently few people are likely to vote in Tuesday’s Cedar Rapids City Council runoff race to fill two at-large council seats that Joel Miller, Linn County Auditor and commissioner of elections, is calling for change.

Miller on Monday said the city of Cedar Rapids should scrap its early December runoff procedure and revert to a primary election in October a month before the general election when more voters are paying attention.

Miller said less than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters may cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, which is less than half of the 22.3 percent of voters who voted in the Nov. 5 general city election.

"You’ve got two important positions to be elected by even a smaller minority of voters than (in the Nov. 5 general election)," Miller said. "That doesn’t make any sense from a democracy point of view. That’s just not the right way to do it. I think it’s a travesty. We shouldn’t be doing it this way."

Statistics on early and absentee voting for Tuesday’s council runoff race seemed to suggest a low turnout.

By late Monday afternoon, Miller’s office reported that 719 voters had cast early or absentee votes, a number which is 28.6 percent of the 2,509 early or absentee voters who cast ballots in the Cedar Rapids at-large race in the Nov. 5 general election.

None of seven candidates seeking the two at-large council seats secured the required number of votes — 25 percent of the total vote plus one vote — to win on Nov. 5.

The four top vote-getters now are in the runoff race for the two seats.

Last month, incumbent Chuck Swore won 24.26 percent of the total vote (each voter can cast two votes); Ralph Russell, 19.36 percent; Susie Weinacht, 19.01 percent; and Carletta Knox-Seymour, 15.05 percent.

The city of Cedar Rapids changed from primary elections to runoff elections in 2005 when the voters approved a new City Charter, which changed the city’s form of government from a commission form with five full-time council member-commissioners to a council-manager government with nine part-time council members, including a part-time mayor, and a full-time city manager.

The city’s Charter Commission had incorporated runoff races in the proposed new city charter in 2005, and in 2011, a new Charter Commission convened to review the City Charter. It made a few charter changes, but kept the runoff elections in place, Mayor Ron Corbett said on Monday.

Nonetheless, Corbett said, "We’re open to all suggestions."

In 2011, the commission did consider the concept of instant runoff voting, in which voters pick their top choice and then rank other choices, with ranking deciding the victor if no candidate receives a majority of votes. The city of Minneapolis now is using this system, though the Cedar Rapids commission rejected the concept.

Even so, Clark Reike, who was defeated on Nov. 5 in the District 1 council race, on Monday said same-day, instant runoffs make sense. Such a setup avoids costly runoffs, which also force candidates to campaign an extra month for an election few people participate in.

Linn County’s Miller said Iowa would have to change state law to permit instant runoffs.

One argument for runoffs is that they aren’t needed in every city election cycle — there was no runoff in Cedar Rapids in 2011 — while primaries might be. Thus, some years the city would save the estimated $60,000 it costs to hold either a runoff or a primary.

However, Miller said runoffs that come in early December get lost in the holiday season, particularly so when most of the other Cedar Rapids council races and ballot issues if any have been decided in November.

Miller said no other city in Linn County uses runoffs. All the other cities in the county have abandoned primaries and allow top vote-getters to win in November no matter what percentage of the total vote in a race the top vote-getter might win.

However, Corbett said some races with many candidates could see a winner with less than a third of the total vote.

In recent city elections in Cedar Rapids, December runoffs have drawn fewer voters than the November general election.

In 2009, 27 percent of voters cast ballots in the November at-large council races, but only 9.5 percent voted in the at-large runoff.

In 2007, a runoff in District 4 drew just 9.6 percent of district voters, though the general election that year only brought out 12.1 percent of voters.

In 2001, the city’s primary election at the time saw 22.29 percent of voters vote while the general election saw 46 percent of voters vote. That year, challenger Paul Pate defeated three-term incumbent Mayor Lee Clancey.

Polls in Cedar Rapids open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 8 p.m.

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