Young people are statistically the least likely voters, especially in local elections in high-turnover college towns. But last week, Iowa City saw a burst of presidential-level voting activity on the University of Iowa campus. This burst of civic activism was prompted by an issue with direct impact on most students: their nightlife.
Iowa City voters are considering an ordinance that would prevent anyone under age 21 from entering bars after 10 p.m. The question was placed on the ballot by a citizen petition allowed under Iowa City's home rule charter. Proponents argue the ordinance would reduce underage and binge drinking, while supporters contend it would merely push partying to the less controlled house-party environment. (Lost in the shuffle: the legislative question of whether or not a 21-year-old drinking age law is either just or workable in a college town.)
The referendum has stirred the sleeping giant of student apathy. Members of the whimsically named Student Health Initiative Taskforce (the Iowa City Press Citizen, which has endorsed a yes vote, is reluctant to print the name because of the acronym) petitioned for five satellite voting sites on campus before last Friday's voter registration deadline, and nearly 2,900 people voted on campus. The satellite vote effort followed a vote-by-mail drive the previous week that netted about 1,800 requests. In this world turned upside down electorate, the most likely voters to have requested absentee ballots were independents aged 18 to 24 in Iowa City Precinct 5, a downtown area made up almost entirely of dorms and fraternities.
Of course, a requested ballot isn't the same thing as a counted vote. In 2001, bar owner Mike Porter led a similar but smaller vote-by-mail drive on behalf of city council candidate Leah Cohen, owner of bar-restaurant Bo James in downtown Iowa City. Four hundred people, mostly young, never returned their ballots, and Cohen lost by 58 votes. This year, Cohen and Porter are leading Bloc21, the "adult" vote-no group.
Even in smaller numbers, the student vote can be decisive in city elections. Rick Dobyns, the doctor who led the petition drive, was a council candidate in 2005 and led in the October primary. But he lost by wide margins in student precincts in November, and even though the absolute numbers were small, they were enough to cost Dobyns the election by 194 votes.
The 21 bar issue was on the minds of the four candidates for two at-large council seats. The candidates met Monday at a "No Baloney" forum hosted by Gary Sanders, a longtime fixture on the Iowa City political scene. It is believed that in some dictionaries, under the word "gadfly," a portrait of Sanders appears. He hoisted an actual ring of baloney, which he threatened to use as a gavel at the debate. Sanders is an ardent 21 bar supporter who conducted a recent Sunday morning "vomit tour" of downtown sidewalks.
Attorney Matt Hayek was an overwhelming primary winner and has drawn support from both sides of the Iowa City political spectrum, including conservative former Mayor Bill Ambrisco and progressive County Supervisor Rod Sullivan. Hayek opposes the 21 bar referendum but acknowledges "there are good intentions on both sides."
Mike Wright, a University librarian, finished second in the primary and is seen as the progressive candidate. Wright is a neighborhood association activist on the north side, an area of mixed student and non-student housing, and supports the 21 bar referendum citing a number of problem houses in his neighborhood. "Part of the solution is we need to find a non-alcoholic venue for students," he said in the forum.
Terry Smith finished third in the primary. Smith is a manager at Mid-American Energy and led the 2005 effort against a public power referendum. Public power lost two to one but was outspent about 20 to one. Smith opposes the bar issue and positioned himself in the forum as a defender of "adult rights," citing his 20-year-old son who is about to be shipped off to Iraq. Smith said his son frequently goes out to bars as a designated driver. As for underage drinkers, Smith said, "Since these people are already breaking the law, is it really going to be effective to put one more law on the books?"
Bloc21 is backing Hayek and Smith. Hayek said the endorsement was without his consent. "We want to be completely independent of the referendum," he said at the forum, saying he contacted Porter after the first day of early voting and asked him to remove Hayek signs from a colorfully festooned "Hawk Patrol" SUV that Porter was driving around campus. Smith said he'd been tipped off by Hayek and had also asked Porter to remove his signs. But as of Friday, referendum opponents were still handing out fliers on campus urging students to vote Smith and Hayek as well as no on the referendum.
Seemingly lost in the shuffle is incumbent Dee Vanderhoef, coming off a fourth-place October primary finish. Vanderhoef is a downtown business owner and a 21 bar supporter. "How can a non-alcoholic venue succeed without the (21 bar) law?" she asked rhetorically at the forum. "The business plan does not work in competition with an alcohol venue." Vanderhoef appears almost resigned to defeat. In Monday's forum, she didn't contest claims that the "real race" is between Smith and Wright, and said she was hearing concerns from voters that her 12 years on the council is long enough.
After the petition was submitted, under Iowa City's charter the city council had the option of either passing the 21 bar ordinance outright or placing the issue on the ballot. "I personally support the ordinance, but it's time for the citizens to speak," Vanderhoef said. She contends there was a council majority for 21 bars from 1999 to 2003, but passage was prevented because one member wanted to use the bar age as a bargaining chip on other issues.
With the unprecedented student turnout, referendum supporters will need overwhelming "townie" support to succeed, and absentee voting rates show no signs of a corresponding backlash vote. At Monday's forum, Sanders asked if students should even be voting in a local election. "It's the law; we have to let them," said Vanderhoef. "Democracy isn't always perfect," said Wright, earning himself a whap from the ring of baloney.