Friday, August 09, 2013

A 21 Side Bar

Lost in the coverage of the Iowa City council's vote to put 21 Bar back on the ballot for a third time: a concurrent vote to reaffirm the council's support of 21, and how that illustrates the dysfunction of Iowa City's electoral system.

Putting the issue on the ballot is kind of a neutral thing. Sure, the council could have seen the error of its ways and repealed 21, but deferring the question to the voters is fair enough. But then immediately re-affirming support for the ordinance? Unanimously?!?

To the untrained eye this contest looks one-sided.  The Yes/19 campaign is inept and invisible, unable to even return reporters' calls. "21 Makes Sense" (sic) has the same all star names it got in 2010 and blanketed the news with its rollout Wedneasday. But this isn't a landslide issue. Don't forget that in 2010, 21 barely survived, just 52-48% (scroll all the way to right).

We're in a town-gown polarized community, so polarized it's unhealthy. There was only one precinct in town that had anything resembling that citywide 52-48 margin - an area that transitioned from student to townie housing. Other than that, the student precincts voted overwhelmingly for 19 and the townies nearly as strongly for 21. The net result: a close race.

Yet the council is governing like it has landslide support on this issue. Which, regardless of what you think of the bar issue itself, is my point.

Set aside the bar admission age issue for a moment. I'd like to; I'm a little too... passionate about it, and I'd really rather someone else, someone with hair and without grandchildren, made the case for my side. For the sake of argument, go to Your Special Place and insert any other bipolar question. Packers-Bears. Mary Anne or Ginger. Cats or dogs. All issues with strong feelings and substantial support on both sides.

To get elected to the city council in Iowa City, you have to win a city-wide election. I'm not going to try to explain the screwy pseudo-district and primary system here; I did so elsewhere recently. Point is, to get a seat you have to win city-wide. And townies flatly refuse to vote for student candidates. In 2011 Raj Patel ran a serious well-funded campaign at age 20 with significant townie support, and he still couldn't get votes east of Governor or west of Sunset.

There's loads of research and history showing that at-large electoral systems have long been used as a tool to dilute minority votes. And Iowa City has not elected a student to the city council since 1979. (No, middle-aged Michelle Payne taking a class doesn't count.) 48 percent of the votes for 19 bar? Zero percent of the votes when the city council reaffirms it.

I'm not asking for a forfeit-style win. A majority, however slim, supported 21 last time. But in a fair system that more accurately reflected voter sentiment, that council vote would have 4-3 or 5-2, not 7-0.

The other communities I've lived in were all college towns in Wisconsin, of similar size to Iowa City. Their city councils were a larger body, a couple dozen members each, elected from wards about the size of our precincts. Each town had two or three students on the council. They didn't run the show, but they had a seat - a VOTING seat - at the table, and from time to time their concerns were addressed or at least heard.

That's the model I'd like to see here.

The city charter is up for review next year. I'm planning to apply for the Charter Review Commission. And without too much bragging, I think I'm highly qualified. What do you think my chances are?

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