Monday, June 03, 2013

Republican District Petition Fails

Johnson County Republicans have failed in their effort to force an August 6 special election to divide the county into districts for Board of Supervisors elections. The legal deadline slipped past at the close of business today.

But the effort, a hot topic a couple months ago, fizzled out well before the deadline. Republican sources privately said the drive was at least 2000 names short of the 7598 signatures needed. The GOP also considered a proposal to hire professional petitioners, but the idea was voted down.

It seemed the more people learned about the district plan, the less they liked it. The argument for districts seemed to be that rural voters were under-represented on a board where three members lived inside the Iowa City limits. But a look at two decades of history shows that the present membership is an anomaly and historically most seats have been held by rural residents. As recently as 2000 all five supervisors were rural.

Petition supporters also seemed to have an ideal map in their heads based on Linn County, which has an all-rural "doughnut" district almost entirely surrounding the urban Cedar Rapids-Marion core. Johnson County's census numbers do not allow a map like that. According to redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering, Johnson County would require three districts primarily in Iowa City, one dominated by Coralville, and a third mostly in North Liberty, with the rural area split up and appended to other districts.

In the end, the public seems to have seen the district plan as a partisan effort targeting the two most liberal supervisors, Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan, who happen to live near each other. It wasn't about districts as much as it was the Rod Sullivan Recall Election; if a plan had passed all five supervisors would have needed to run in 2014, including the three who were just elected to four year terms in 2012. We've seen that dynamic before, in a June 2007 North Liberty vote on city council wards that was more honestly an effort to recall the mayor.

If you want recall elections, fine, talk to the Legislature. But be careful what you wish for. My poor parents in Wisconsin voted six extra times in recall elections between November 2010 and November 2012, and my guess in Johnson County and especially in townie-student polarized Iowa City is that we'd be voting on some recall or another constantly.

That sort of fatigue factor also played a role in the petition's failure. An August 6 district vote would have been the fourth special election of the year, and one of probably seven major votes for calendar 2013. The September 10 school board election and November 5 city election are definite; it's also very likely that Iowa City will have an October 8 primary as they haven't avoided one since 1991.

Under the special code section that deals just with supervisor representation plans, there is one opportunity for such a petition every two years, with a deadline of June 1 of the odd numbered year. (This year that was extended by two days because June 1 was a Saturday.) The signature requirement is 10% of the top of the ticket vote, president or governor.

That means the next chance is June 2015 and the bar will be lower, based on governor turnout rather than presidential. Based on 2010, the 2011 signature requirement would have been 5173.

But the moment may have passed. For now the district plan will sit, as a bad idea whose time has not come. And with the district plan dead, the 2014 supervisor race will start in earnest. Republicans undercut their own case for districts by winning, for the first time in a half century, an at-large seat on the Board of Supervisors in the March special election. Democrats can expect a spirited primary exactly one year from today for the right to take on the GOP's John Etheredge in a high-turnout general election, a very different election than a low turnout special.

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