Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Primary Runoffs: Another Bad Idea From The Iowa Legislature

Well THIS one snuck up on us.

When Brad Zaun introduced his bill requiring runoffs for inconclusive primaries again this year, I thought it was just his sore loser statement. It got through committee, but I dismissed it.

Today it passed the Senate. BIPARTISAN and UNANIMOUSLY. So this could really happen. Before I tell you why that's bad, let's get the n00bs up to speed.

Iowa law requires candidates to win 35% in a primary to claim a nomination. If no one gets 35, the nomination goes to a party convention of delegates chosen through the caucus/convention process. (I'm simplifying slightly.)

That very famously happened in the 2014 open seat Republican primary in the 3rd CD. Zaun finished first in a six way race, but well below the 35%. David Young had finished next to last, ahead of only the crazy Some Dude. (Matt Schultz was crazy but as sitting Secretary of State he was not a Some Dude.)

But Young made himself everyone's second or third choice, and by surviving to the final convention ballot, he became Not Zaun to the sizable Anyone But Zaun majority. Zaun grumbled, and introduced a bill in the 2015 session to replace the conventions with a runoff just four weeks after the primary. It went nowhere, and when Zaun had the chance to take up his beef directly with Young in the 2016 primary, he chose to run for re-election in his Urbandale senate district instead.

So when Zaun filed the runoff bill, now numbered Senate File 483, early this session, I assumed it would meet the same fate. But here we sit, with unanimous Senate passage and almost no publicity.

I'll admit the worst problem with the bill has gone away. The original draft specified the runoff date as four weeks after the primary, which would have been logistically impossible. Recounts and printing delays could have meant almost no early voting at all. The election date could have landed right on the 4th of July, and would have definitely landed during the window of that long holiday.

The bill passed today now sets the runoff date as early August. That's at least possible, though many poll workers will still be on vacations, and it adds a big task to an already full period of general election filing and prep. It would be a lot like the task that no auditor misses of running an even-year school board election just before a general election. (We've been relieved of that since 2010.)

The August date is particularly challenging in my county, as every lease in town expires on August 1. 

Iowa has had some other famous convention nominations other than the Young-Zaun battle. Most notably, Steve King was first nominated at a 2002 convention after finishing with 31% and first place in a four way primary. I may not be helping my case against runoffs with that example, especially this week.

We've also had two near-misses that would have required statewide Republican runoffs. In 2002 Doug Gross won the nomination for governor with just 35.6% in a three way race.  In the 2008 Senate primary for the right to lose to Tom Harkin, Christopher Reed won just over 35, also in a three way race. Runner-up George Eichhorn was considering a recount until the flood of 2008 took everyone's mind off it.

(Odd how the closest calls were in three way contests where the math has to split almost perfectly to keep someone under 35. The chances go up as the field grows.)

There was also a lot of convention talk before the five way 2014 Republican Senate primary, until Joni Ernst broke out of the pack in the last couple weeks to win with an absolute majority.

We laughed at "castrating hogs," but it played way better than "a farmer from Iowa who isn't even a lawyer could be chairman of the Judiciary Committee." Though, technically, Braley was correct.

Locally, our last county convention for an inconclusive primary was after a six way 1964 Democratic sheriff primary.

Elections are expensive. What does Zaun's bill say about the costs?
The bill may include a state mandate as defined in Code 14 section 25B.3. The bill makes inapplicable Code section 25B.2, 15 subsection 3, which would relieve a political subdivision from 16 complying with a state mandate if funding for the cost of 17 the state mandate is not provided or specified. Therefore, 18 political subdivisions are required to comply with any state 19 mandate included in the bill.

So county auditors and county taxpayers are stuck with the bill. It's a lot to pay just because one legislator has a chip on his shoulder about losing two races for Congress.

This, while legislators are simultaneously pushing House File 566 which would combine city and school elections, in the name of "saving costs. (It will do nothing of the kind, and there are other agendas at work, but that's another post...)

Don't forget: Iowa now has THREE full status parties which could hold primaries, as the Libertarians gained full party status last fall.

We've had two third-party primaries in recent years, with very similar turnout. The uncontested 2002 Green primary attracted 439 voters. That's not the Johnson County number. That's 439 in the whole state. And in 1998, 395 Reform Party voters participated statewide in their three-way governor primary.

The winner of that primary was perennial candidate Jim Hennager (last seen last year as the "New Independent Party Iowa" candidate for Senate). He beat the other two Some Dudes with just 39.8% of the votes. A shift of a couple dozen votes could have put him under 35%.

The Libertarians will probably pull SOME more voters than the Greens and Reform, but not a lot. In fact, since the LP earned "organization" status in 2008, the pattern at caucus and primary time was for many of those voters to cross back to the major parties. You'll see more places with ONE Libertarian, but not a lot of contested races.

But picture this scenario, which as you saw came close for the Reform Party:

In August, counties have to pay more than 5000 poll workers to open every one of Iowa's 1681 precincts from 7 AM to 9 PM for a Libertarian runoff for secretary of agriculture, because no one got 35% in a primary that drew fewer than 500 voters. Let's average that to $150 a day for each worker (we pay more, some pay less), and we're spending over $750,000, just on the workers.

Instant runoff might be a better option, but Joe Bolkcom's bill for that is dead.  In that case,
wouldn't it be better to just let keep the present system and the Libertarians settle that at a convention?

Or, for that matter, the Democrats and Republicans as well?

Personally, I'd rather see delegates, who at least in theory are committed to the party's success, settle an internal dispute, rather than interlopers.

Because in a runoff scenario, there may only be a contest on one side. That happens sometimes in regular primaries, too, but it's much more common in runoff scenarios. Should someone who picked the Democratic candidates for supervisor in June get to pick the GOP candidate for governor in August?

Rewind back to 2010. The Republicans had a hot three way race between Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Plaats, and third wheel Rod Roberts. There had been a much larger field until Branstad was recruited back into the ball game; he was the only guy who could beat Vander Plaats, and Vander Plaats was the only guy who could lose to Chet Culver. After Branstad announced, all the also rans except Roberts bailed.

But what if a couple had stayed in? What if Roberts had done a bit better, or Branstad had stumbled? What if we had faced an August runoff between Branstad and Vander Plaats? What would Democrats do?

Granted, a lot of people crossed over anyway. But at least they had the chance to vote against Tom Fiegen in a US Senate primary, and some local contests here and there. But if the ONLY game in town was Republican governor, wouldn't it be tempting to ratf*** the GOP?

And is it fair to let you vote for the Republican candidates when you had already voted for Culver?

This issue came up in a big, big way in Alabama in 1986:
The Democratic primary resulted in a runoff between Lieutenant Governor Bill Baxley and Attorney General Charles Graddick. Graddick, the more conservative of the two Democrats (Deeth's note: at this time George Wallace was still the incumbent governor), won the runoff election by a slim margin. Baxley challenged the results, and claimed that Graddick violated Democratic Party rules by encouraging people who voted in the Republican primary to cross over and vote in the Democratic runoff election.

While Republicans in the state have held open primaries for years, the Democrats bar Republicans and Independents from voting in its primary election. This challenge went to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled that crossover voting had taken place in large numbers and that the Democratic Party either had to select Baxley as the nominee or hold another runoff election. The party opted to name Baxley as its nominee.
 Baxley went on to lose, and the Alabama Democrats have never really recovered.

This kind of crossover shenanigans is the same reason Iowa's parties have always opted to have their caucuses on the same night at the same time, to keep people from voting in both nomination contests. It's a good principle and a good precedent.

I'm not a fan of crossover voting in primaries, but I'm in the minority there. At the very least, though, fairness demands that voters choose once and participate in only one party's process. If the voters deadlock, let the activists who are committed to victory and not to interference make the choice. There's no "crisis" that needs to be solved here, other than one legislator's bruised ego.

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