In a couple of days, voters will go the polls to elect city council and school board members in Iowa.
In a way, it's a historic election. For the first time that we can remember, people vying for City Hall offices will be on the same ballot as those wanting to sit on area school boards. Previously, school board elections were held in September. The elections were consolidated because of a state law passed in 2017.
What has resulted is that voters have had a lot thrown their way this year. There are 14 people running for school board seats in Davenport and six in Bettendorf. That’s in addition to the city council races. (In Bettendorf none of the council contests are competitive, so the burden is lighter. But in Davenport, it was less than a month ago that we saw six people running for mayor. And because there was a recount in the mayor's race after the Oct. 8 primary, that resulted in an even more compressed general election campaign season.
We don’t begrudge mayoral candidate Dan Portes his recount request. After all, he finished third by a small margin, just eight votes short of qualifying for the general election. But it took a week to settle that question. So Davenport absentee voters didn't get their ballots until last week. The county auditor's office tells us the recount pushed back the distribution date until Oct. 23.
So, yes, it seems like a lot of things have conspired this year to make it harder for voters to educate themselves on who to choose to run their city and their school districts. (We would note that, in addition to city and school board races, community college directors also are on some of the ballots.)
Some of this is the way it is because of state. There are a limited number of local election systems, and the law allows four weeks between a primary and a general election. Even the runoff system has a four-week gap between a general election and the runoff, which becomes necessary if any candidate for office fails to get a majority of the vote.
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Still, some states hold primary and general elections further apart, and it works pretty well. This would offer a longer campaign season and give people the time to get to know the candidates better. There is some downside to this: Some folks would not welcome the extended political season and it could complicate governing. Still, these are important offices, and if voters are to make informed decisions they must have the time to fully consider their choices.
The state's decision in 2017 to consolidate the ballot, we're told, was driven by the desire to boost participation in school board elections, which statewide have averaged about 6.5 percent in recent years, compared with 21 percent for city elections.
We expect some lawmakers also wanted to lessen the influence of the teacher's union in these low-turnout elections, as well as save some money. (We have our doubts about the cost savings. With cities and school districts having different boundaries, not to mention the community college, that means a lot more specific ballots.)
We understand dissatisfaction with poor turnout. We share it. But given our experience this year, we don’t think this is any better.
Perhaps we should be grateful that Iowa, unlike some states, isn't looking to bucket local elections with federal ones, a move that's taken hold in some parts of the country. (Imagine the size of the ballot then!)
Still, we think that once the dust has settled on this election, local and state officials ought to take to heart the lessons and look at ways to give people more time to adequately consider their choices. If the combined ballot is here to stay, then we think there needs to be more time between the primary and general elections.