Republicans would be listed first on nearly all ballots in Iowa in the 2018 election if a bill passed along party lines in the state Senate last week were to take effect this year.
The bill is now pending in the House.
The legislation, proposed by Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, would alter the way candidates are listed on the ballot. Currently, county auditors decide the order of candidates. In many, if not all, counties the auditor tends to list their party's candidates first, according to auditors and other officials.
The new legislation, though, would require that ballots list the party of the winning candidate in that county from the last gubernatorial election. In 2014, that was Terry Branstad, a Republican, in 98 of 99 counties. Johnson County was the only exception.
Democrats have cried foul, calling it a blatant attempt at a sort-of gerrymandering to gain advantage. But Republican supporters say they are trying to remove the ability of county auditors to unilaterally make the decision how to list candidates. "We thought this would be the fairest way to do so," Chapman said during debate last week.
In Scott County, Democrats have been listed first for decades. County Auditor Roxanna Moritz is a Democrat, as was her predecessor. In Muscatine County, Leslie Soules, a Republican, has been the auditor since 1995, and there was a Republican in office before her.
Ballot placement may seem like a trivial matter to some, but studies have found it has an impact on the outcome of races, especially further down the ballot where voters have less information about the candidates.
"Except for a few high-profile, high-information races, the ballot order effect is large," the summary of a study of 2014 races in Texas said. The study was published in 2016 by Darren Grant, an associate professor of economics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
Other studies have differed on the magnitude of the effect.
The Senate bill passed on a 29-21 vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing. Sen. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport, voted against it, while Sens. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, and Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine supported it.
Moritz said she doesn't believe the custom of auditors putting their party first has an effect on voters. "I think people know what they're looking for," she said. She objected to the Senate bill, adding, "I just don't like them meddling in elections they don't know a lot about."
Soules also said she doesn't believe the order makes much difference, and that when she got into office she just continued the tradition.
"When I came on more than 20 years ago, that's how I was told how everybody did it," she said. She added she has not been asked to change it, either. She said she doesn't have an opinion on the legislation.
Democratic critics, however, see the bill as the latest in a pattern of Republicans seeking to consolidate power by changing voting rules and practices.
"This is so partisan," Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said during the debate last week.
Sen. David Johnson, an independent from Ocheydan, offered an amendment to rotate candidates. It was defeated, with Republicans voting against and Democrats for it.
This is the latest legislative move to alter how elections are conducted. Last year, Republicans passed legislation requiring voters to present a picture ID at the ballot box. The legislature also outlawed straight-ticket voting last year. Last week, House Republicans passed a bill that would require counties with more than 60,000 people to elect county supervisors by district. That would force a change in Scott County, which currently elects its supervisors on a county-wide basis. That bill is pending in the Senate.