"I thought the compressed cycle and the shadow of the general election would lower turnout. But it appears that Iowa City wants to squeeze in a full-fledged city election cycle. The real loser may be the Democratic ticket as this city council vacancy sucks up a lot of energy in the most Democratic county." John Deeth, September 5
Called that one wrong,
Instead, the lesson from Tuesday's abysmal (9%) turnout Iowa City special election is more basic and more universal: In local elections, a big field of candidates means more people out campaigning means more turnout.
Historically, turnout roughly doubles between an Iowa City primary and the final election four weeks later. But that's in a normal cycle, with six or eight candidates on the final ballot.
Tuesday, with two people on the ballot instead of the five from the primary, turnout was up just 229 people, from 3966 to the 4195 we had Tueday. Nearly all of that increase came in the absentees, which bumped from 490 in September to 666 Tuesday.
(I almost hate to tell people but we got three countable ballots in Wednesday's mail, ruining the 666...)
And most of that absentee gain was because the short early voting window was one day longer; the auditor's office was closed the day before the primary for Labor Day, and we saw about 150 voters this Monday. Only 53 more people showed up at the polls Tuesday than voted at the polls September 4.
That's unheard of between a city primary and a final city election. Again: turnout usually doubles. Tuesday's turnout falls below the record low for a regular cycle city election of 4685 (9.7%) set in 2009. That was both a yawner and a blowout that was decided on filing deadline day when townies Terry Dickens and Susan Mims drew unknown students as opponents.
This election was at least closer, with no obvious pattern or key to Bruce Teague's win. He consistently did just a little bit better than Ann Freerks across the city. In precincts with significant turnout (the student vote was negligible), Teague topped 60% on the southeast side (Twain and Grant Wood), in precinct 6 (Village Green and Town and Campus) 17 (the old City High precinct) and 24 (Windsor Ridge). Freerks led Teague on the absentees and in precincts 4 (Manville Heights), 8 (the Weber area), 10 (south central part of town) and interestingly in precinct 21, the lefty Horace Mann precinct temporarily voting at St. Wenceslaus Church.
But turnout was down in precincts 17 through 21, the progressive and downtown core of the People's Republic. Some of the vote may have been a shift to early vote - no doubt some folks who usually vote early had the calendar sneak up on them in the primary and realized too late that there was no voting on Labor Day.
But more of that may have been the smaller field, and more to the point WHICH candidates were eliminated in the primary. And I don't just mean the "vote for my friend" people who were motivated to get out by personal ties to the defeated candidates, and then skipped the second round.
The groups that know the most about getting out voters in local elections are the old guard/townie/Chamber of Commerce faction, and organized labor and its allies. Labor was supporting Christine Ralston in the primary, but she trailed Teague by 18 votes. The Chamber's choice, Brianna Wills, was just behind in fourth place, while Ryan Hall, favored by the left of the left, was fifth.
That meant the groups who know the most about boosting turnout were largely bystanders in the second election. On the surface it seems that slightly more of the Hall and Ralston vote shifted to Teague (Hall posted on social media Monday that he had voted for Teague), but there's another layer here.
The organized groups had favorites but they also had "Anyone But" candidates. The Chamber's historic boogeyman has always been the prospect of a student on the city council (which hasn't happened since the early `80s), especially a student as left as Hall. Labor-liberal types, meanwhile, were opposed to the Chamber's favorite, Wills - and it was her total collapse in the progressive precincts that knocked her from second place to fourth in the primary.
But the two Unacceptable candidates were eliminated, reducing that kind of motivation. Survivors Freerks and Teague were more or less acceptable to most of the
Every Election Voters who chose to participate.
Had Hall gotten through the primary, you would have seen the townies energized like they haven't been since the last 21 Bar election in 2013. And had Wills survived, labor might have gotten seriously involved, rather than setting this election aside in favor of general election efforts.
Those general election efforts, by everyone, were just getting a good start in late August during the primary campaign, but were in full gear by late September. Opening day for early voting is next Monday and would have been last Thursday if not for the change in the election calendar that was part of the voter ID law. (As much as I hate losing 11 days of early voting, overlapping voting periods for two different elections are a logistical nightmare.) While the primary campaign was briefly able to draw focus, Tuesday's election truly felt like an afterthought.
Or maybe a preseason game?
One thing I got right after the primary: "Wills and Ralston both came close enough to be credible for a 2019 run, when four seats are up." Add Ann Freerks, with a first in the primary and a credibly close second Tuesday, to that statement. We may look back on City Election 2018 as just the opening round of City Election 2019.