| Marissa Payne | @gazettedotcom |

CEDAR RAPIDS — Citizens chose Cedar Rapids’ municipal flag through ranked choice voting.

The concept — essentially “instant runoff” voting — may seem unfamiliar, but its supporters say ranked choice voting is less costly than having a runoff election, results in higher voter turnout, discourages negative campaigning and leads to the election of candidates who are favored by a broader swathe of voters.

We hope that this is a real step forward.

Advocates believe Cedar Rapids — as Iowa’s second-largest city, with a trend of Republican mayors serving a Democratic-leaning city — is the prime spot to pilot ranked choice voting and to lobby state lawmakers to make the system legal in Iowa cities.

The once-a-decade Cedar Rapids charter review process offers an opportunity for city officials and a citizen panel to consider whether to change the way the city’s elections are run.

Ultimately, whether to have primary elections, runoff elections or a ranked choice system is not up to the nine-member Cedar Rapids Charter Review Commission.

It would take a change in Iowa law before ranked choice voting is allowed, and the City Council would have to sign off on any recommended changes.

Today’s meeting

The charter review commission will hear a presentation about ranked choice voting when it meets at 11:30 a.m. today in the City Hall training room, 101 First St. SE.

The commission could:

  • Recommend the council adopt “trigger” language so the city would go to ranked choice voting if Iowa law is changed to allow it.
  • Suggest language directing the council to appoint a new commission to consider the issue if ranked choice voting becomes allowed under Iowa law.
  • Decide against recommending ranked choice voting.

After a contentious and costly local election cycle last November, the three mayoral candidates have voiced support for exploring alternatives to the city’s current runoff system , including ranked choice voting.

At this time, a runoff is held if no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote in the November general election.

The pitch

Matt Wetstein, director of Better Ballot Iowa, the nonprofit calling for the adoption of ranked choice voting in Iowa, said ranked choice voting can improve the divisive, negative political climate caused by plurality voting.

With around 10 percent of the group’s members living in Cedar Rapids, he said, it made strategic sense to focus on a discussion about ranked choice voting here.

“Ranked choice voting automatically builds more accountability between the elected leaders and the public because elected leaders have to look outside their own pluralities,” Wetstein said.

Multiple rounds of runoffs can be conducted under a ranked choice system to decide a given contest — essentially the same as holding a runoff, except people don’t have to cast ballots again. They rank their preferences right on the November ballot.

That also means a potentially different and often smaller group of voters than in a general election will be deciding the winner of a runoff election.

In ranked choice voting, voters don’t have to rank all the candidates, Wetstein said, but that’s a choice the voter gets to make.

“Cedar Rapids just turned out to be a perfect example of where this is beneficial,” Wetstein said.

Why Cedar Rapids?

The November runoff election in the race for mayor worked as well as it could have, Wetstein said.

“The mayor was the clear winner, no matter how you cut it,” Wetstein said of Tiffany O’Donnell’s election as mayor. She was the top vote-getter in the general and the runoff elections, held four weeks apart.

Though the result was conclusive, Wetstein said, it came at a cost — around $80,000 to hold the runoff. Plus, the candidates — O’Donnell, opponent Amara Andrews and incumbent Brad Hart — raised $483,776 in campaign funds as they vied for mayor.

There also was lower turnout in the runoff election.

In the Nov. 2 election, 26,248 votes were cast in the mayoral race. In the Nov. 30 runoff, 19,898 citizens voted — a turnout of 21.43 percent of the city’s 92,832 eligible voters.

Wetstein said O’Donnell, a registered Republican who campaigned as being for the “party of Cedar Rapids” in the nonpartisan race for mayor, “represents a very broad-consensus mayor who’s able to talk to a wide constituency and who is able to straddle two sides of the partisan leaning in the state.”

As such, he said, she makes a good advocate for the issue.

Among Iowa cities his group has examined, Wetstein said Cedar Rapids probably has the longest history of elections where it’s clear ranked choice voting would have resulted in the election of a more broadly favored candidate.

In the years when at-large council seats are only on the ballot, there is often a more than 50 percent drop in turnout — pointing to at-large council races in 2005, 2009 and 2013.

For example, in 2013, council incumbent Chuck Swore emerged as the top vote-getter in the November general election, with 7,950 votes in a field of seven candidates vying for two at-large seats. Swore was just slightly below the threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

In the runoff, with the three lowest vote-getters out of the running, Swore received 2,895 votes — the fewest of the four remaining candidates. Carletta Knox-Seymour finished third — receiving about 62 percent of the votes Swore received in the general election. Ralph Russell and Susie Weinacht won the two council seats .

“You’re hoping that the runoff is going to add more voters to the winning candidates so you can say the winning candidates in the runoff did better than in the general election — and not just in percentage, but in actual number of votes,” Wetstein said. “That didn’t happen there.”

Local elections provide a gateway to push for change at the state and federal levels, Wetstein said. And in Iowa, that change could start with Cedar Rapids, he said.

“There’s no perfect system, but we feel that it is a far better system than what Cedar Rapids currently has — better than other options available in state law,” Wetstein said. “We hope that this is a real step forward, not only for Cedar Rapids but for the rest of the state to consider this.”

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