Dubuque voters have spoken — well, 7% of them. By voting in the primary election Tuesday, they cut two of those eligible candidates seeking seats on the City Council — one from Ward 3 and one from Ward 4.
The top two vote-getters in each of those ward primaries advance to the Nov. 5 general election. (No primary was needed for the at-large seat and the seat in Ward 2. as only two candidates filed.)
Looking at the lopsided results this week, as well as other such races the past 20 years, and considering that taxpayers this week spent about $12,000 to eliminate just one candidate from each of two wards, it’s time to ask: Is there a better way?
The answer: Yes. Switch city elections to a runoff system.
In the long run, runoff elections would be required less frequently than primaries — never more often — and thus would save time and money.
Here’s how it would work. Every candidate goes onto the general election ballot. If there are three candidates, fine. If there are a dozen, fine. They all are up for a vote in November. No primary election.
Then, if one candidate in November garners a majority of all votes cast — more than all the other candidates combined — he or she is elected. Over and done. However, if the vote is close, and nobody wins a majority in November, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff election a few weeks later. In that scenario, the November election served as a de facto primary.
There haven’t been many Dubuque City Council primaries in the 21st century, but including those this week, half of them would not have been necessary if Dubuque had runoff system instead of the standard primary set-up.
Two years ago, at a cost of $6,000, a Ward 1 primary was held to knock one candidate from the running while Brett Shaw secured a majority of 52%. Shaw later won the general election, again with 52%.
This week, Danny Sprank scored a Ward 3 primary victory with 63% of the vote, leaving the other two candidates, Phil Atkinson and Angie Ma, battling neck-and-neck for the honor of placing a distant second. (Kudos to Ma, who finished third by only five votes, for looking at Tuesday’s result and opting to not demand a recount at taxpayer expense.)
Brad Cavanaugh posted an even bigger landslide win in Ward 4 with a 79% majority. Former school board member Jay Schiesl was second with 18% and advances to face Cavanaugh again in the general election.
Putting it another way: City taxpayers spent an estimated $6,000 to drop from the field Antonino Erba, who attracted 18 votes. Eighteen votes. That’s roughly $333 per Erba voter.
Taxpayers could have saved those thousands of dollars under a runoff system. Ma and Erba could have stayed on the general election ballot, where Sprank and Cavanaugh claimed clear majorities, and voters would have selected their council representatives without participating in (and paying for) two elections.
Nobody’s right to be a candidate would be infringed. So too with voters’ opportunity to select their elected officials. On top of that, more voters might have participated in the process, since citywide and now school board seats would also be on the ballot.
Dubuque’s use of the primary process is standard under Iowa Code. However, making a change is pretty straightforward. According to City Clerk Kevin Firnstahl, citing the Code, a city council would have to adopt an ordinance specifying a different nomination method more than 90 days before the regular election.
Once the candidates elected next month are sworn in, they should look ahead to 2021 and pursue switching to the runoff system.