Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Winning, Not Petitions, The Real Barrier To Iowa City Initiatives

The last thing on the 2016 ballot in Iowa City is what I'm calling the Referendum Referendum: a meta measure to lower the number of signatures needed to pass other citizen initiatives under Iowa City's home rule charter.

The argument seems to be that the signature requirement itself is a major barrier to getting initiatives on the ballot and, ultimately, approved by the voters. I'm semi-agnostic on that, but a look at history shows that step one of getting on the ballot has been less of a problem than step two: getting voters to agree. Settle in for a deep dive; non-locals may wish to opt out.

Until recently, there WAS a problem with the signature process, but it was a problem separate from numbers. Virtually all civic petitions in Iowa require signers to be "eligible" electors, meaning old enough, citizens, non-felons, and living in the appropriate jurisdiction. Signatures are generally accepted at face value unless there are obvious flaws (a West Des Moines address on an Iowa City petition, for example), or if an opponent challenges them.

But the Iowa City initiative standard was "eligible" electors, which the city staff interpreted as actually registered to vote at your current address.  City staff spent countless hours reviewing petitions line by line against the voter rolls. If so much as an apartment or dorm room was off, the signature was stricken.
It openly targeted the most mobile voters: students. The procedure burdened petitioners by making them conduct voter registration drives alongside their petition drives. Not a bad thing in itself, but it slowed down each signature. And with early petition deadlines, long before the August 1 date when every lease in Iowa City turns over, they had to then go back and re-re-register everyone in the fall when it came time for the harder work of actually getting people to vote.

It was also obsolete. With Iowa's election day registration law of 2008, anyone who can prove their address at the polls and is an eligible elector is also a qualified elector.

That problem was resolved in the 2014-15 charter review, by switching the charter to the more reasonable "eligible" elector standard. It also made the deadlines a little more reasonable.

The trade-off for this was raising the NUMBER of signatures. The requirement before 2015 was 25% of the prior city election, which in practice ranged from about 1800 signatures to a prescribed max of 2500 - all with the harder "qualified" elector requirement.  In exchange for the easier "eligible" requirement, the number was raised to a minimum 3600 (or, if higher, 25% of the prior city election, but you'd have to be coming off a near-record turnout for that to kick in.)

My take was that it was a win on the principle of the thing, and that 3600 "eligible" names is about as heavy a lift as 2500 cross-checked "qualified" names. The backers of the Referendum Referendum disagree. Their proposed requirement would be 10% of the last city election, still with the easier "eligible" elector rules; the average range of that would be 700 to 1000 names. (I'm generalizing. Here's the turnout back to `89 if you want to do your own math.)

You could make a case for that... but it would be a stronger case if the landscappe were littered with failed petition drives. In my 26 years here, I know of only one effort that tried and failed to get the signatures: a badly organized medical marijuana effort in the mid-2000s. Everyone else that I know of has successfully qualified for the ballot: 13 times since 1977, so on average once every three or four years.

Two of those issues - the red light camera/drone issue of the early 2010s and the Nuclear Free Zone issue of the mid 80s - were approved by the city council without ever appearing on the ballot. Or, cynics said, in order to keep them off the ballot, as the city council old guard saw them as more symbolic than substantive. Easier just to put up the signs at the city limits. Otherwise those hippies might come out to vote for it and accidentally elect Karen Kubby while they're at it.

So 11 citizen initiated issues have appeared on the Iowa City ballot since the 1970s. The real barrier? Getting these measures approved by the voters.  Only two have ever passed, and one was overturned in a subsequent vote.

The first ever successful effort was 1997's infamous "Yes Means No" effort to stop the extension of First Avenue. Because the language was technically to "remove the First Avenue Extension along Hickory Hill Park from Fiscal Year 1998, and instead, include the First Avenue Extension in Fiscal Year 2002" (still with me?), you had to counter-intuitively vote Yes to stop the road and No to build the road. This has confused voters not just in that election but on every Yes or No ballot question ever since.

With some creative work (stop sign shaped YES signs included), the Yes side prevailed in an upset. But the measure only kicked the can down the road, and as soon as it was legally possible, the bulldoze and build old guard promptly put the road back on the plan. (The road was never the real issue. The real issue was opening up the area around Hickory Hill Park to development.)   

This prompted a second Yes Stop The Road petition, which landed on the 2000 presidential ballot. This time "No, Build The Road" prevailed.  I voted Yes both times but I drive on it anyway.

The only other citizen initiative to pass was the 2007 measure that established what is now called the Community Police Review Board. The issue had actually been petitioned six years earlier but had been stuck in court until being ordered onto the ballot right at the filing deadline. It passed easily, 72-28%.

The police review issue was overshadowed, of course, by the Big One: the first of three citizen initiated votes on the bar admission age.

I've written volumes on this18 year olds are adults, and should have full adult rights. Never budging on that one.  But that's not the point here. The point is: despite the different AGE results, 19 winning once and 21 twice, the citizen initiated Yes side lost all three votes.

People forget now, but that first vote in 2007 was an initiative to RAISE the bar admission age from 19 to 21. The votes weren't there on the council so Rick Dobyns, fresh off his 2005 city council loss, decided to petition for it. So it was Yes for 21, No for 19. It seemed like a slam dunk win... but in one of the biggest upsets in city history, and with the greatest campaign committee name ever, Student Health Initiative Taskforce, students actually VOTED in a non-presidential election and handed the issue a sound defeat, 58-42%.

Consider the sad political career of Rick Dobyns. Loses in 2005. Loses the bar election to the STUDENTS in 2007. Wins in 2011 against an opponent who refused to campaign. Loses in 2015.

Consider also the career of Matt Hayek, who campaigned in 2007 saying he wanted to let the voters decide the bar issue... then when the voters decided wrong (or was it that the wrong voters decided?) he wanted a do-over.

So early in 2010, a new council passed 21, and the bar owners went to work on their petition drive. They succeeded in their strategic goal; by my math they maximized the potential for the student vote in a governor cycle. But with a thumb on the scale from the University and the entire city establishment, with a culture war anti-student mindset in the townie community, and with zero campaign to non-students other than my own obviously ineffective 18 Is Adult rants, the petitioning side failed. It's written out of the history now, but it was a very narrow loss, only 52-48%.  

The third vote in 2013 was a half-assed effort by the bar owners to lower the age back to 19, and it lost two to one. Don't know why they even bothered. I never even got asked to SIGN the petition let alone pass any.

The other big citizen initiated effort of recent years was the public power vote of 2005 - which was under a separate section of state law and not covered by the city charter. Still, it was a thing that citizens petitioned for. That one got clobbered two to one, by a half-million dollar campaign (on a city ballot issue!) by Mid-American and by IBEW declaring it a labor solidarity issue. We knew that one was losing months out and it was the most miserable death march campaign I've ever been on.

Stepping back into the wayback machine for the others:
  • There were two rental property related issues back to back:  a 1977 "tenant-landlord ordinance" which failed narrowly and a 1983 vote on actual rent control which got clobbered.Would love a chance to vote on THAT one again...
  • A 1985 vote to change the city council district system failed; I could never find the actual wording and I've made my own proposal on that one.
  • And a 1989 vote that was technically to change a large zoning parcel but was really to stop Wal-Mart also failed. Just before my time, so I don't know if Vote Yes To Stop WalMart was confusing the way Vote Yes To Stop First Avenue was.
I've petitioned for stuff and it's hard work. But it's not prohibitively hard work, and without the added barrier of the "qualified elector" standard, it's easier work than actually getting people out to vote. Back in 2009 the Republicans got about 8000 signatures in less than two weeks to force a special election after Democrat Janelle Rettig was appointed to the Board of Supervisors.  But they got only half that many people to get out to vote for their candidate.

The very premise of the Referendum Referendum is a scenario I'm having trouble envisioning: an issue that is popular enough and a campaign that is organized enough to win, yet not organized enough to get the signatures. The track record says the signatures are the easy part.

I don't know how I'll vote yet, but I do wish the petitioners behind the Referendum Referendum had used the opportunity of a presidential election to work for a more substantive change or to, you know, elect some people. It would take some variation of a Weed Vote to get noticed over Hillary and Trump (not even 21 Bar Round 4 would do the trick).

Instead, the advocates will be making a big effort in a politically crowded and noisy environment to focus on a process issue that most people will fail to understand and in the end ignore. And in general, the default response to a ballot question you don't understand is No.


Unknown said...

There are a couple of mistakes in this column.

I'm trying to get approved to send the corrections but so far no success.

John said...

Tell me what the deal is and I'll check it out