Ward 1 voters did their part on Tuesday by casting ballots to determine the area’s next representative on the Dubuque City Council.
Well, 12% of them did anyway. Fewer than 1,400 people out of an eligible 11,000 voted in the special election to fill the vacant seat.
That might not sound like a great turnout, but the truth is, it’s not bad for a single-seat election. It was also an increase from the 960 people who voted in the Feb. 2 primary for the seat.
The winner in both the Feb. 2 primary and the March 2 special election was the same: Susan Farber garnered 51.1% of the vote this past week, just slightly less than she received in February, when 52.6% of voters supported her.
The question is, do we really need two elections? It’s a question that we should be asking even if the results of both weren’t so similar.
Jenny Hillary, deputy commissioner of elections for Dubuque County, said the primary election in February cost about $10,000 to conduct. At more than 10 bucks per vote, there has to be a better way. And that says nothing of the time, energy and planning on the part of elections officials, poll workers, candidates and voters.
One approach would be to go to a runoff system. Hold the election with as many candidates as file. If one candidate receives a majority of votes — more than all other candidates combined — then said candidate is the winner. If not, the top two vote-getters participate in a runoff election.
We just saw this play out in the national spotlight with the runoff for the U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. In that state, a general election advances to a runoff between the two top finishers if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. On Nov. 3, Georgians had a choice of 20 candidates to fill one of the state’s Senate seats in a special election ballot. (The seat holder had resigned before the term was up.) The other Senate seat was also up, and three people were in the running in that race. Both went to a runoff.
But such a change at the local level likely would result in one election instead of two in most cases. It might boost voter turnout for the first (only?) election. And even if there is a runoff, nobody is out anything more than under our current system.
Here’s another option: When it comes to local, nonpartisan races, just hold one election, winner take all.
It works for school board elections. In 2011, 11 people ran for four seats on the Dubuque Community School Board. The top four vote-getters got the seats. Fair and square. The same approach could work for the City Council.
For decades, Iowa school board elections were held in September of odd-numbered years, and city council elections were held two months later. Citizens — and this Editorial Board — long asked, why not combine the two and save money?
Elections officials in Iowa resisted the change, saying it would be confusing because it would require multiple different ballots depending on where voters live.
But eventually, state law was changed, and in 2019, Iowa communities had their first attempt at running combined elections for city councils and school boards. Guess what? It worked out just fine.
The 2019 Dubuque City Council election also had a primary contest. That October primary cost about $12,000 to eliminate just one candidate from each of two wards.
Both of the winning candidates from the primary took more than 70% of the vote in the November contest.
In both cases — and in a majority of past local contests — one election would have been sufficient to declare a clear winner. It’s time to stop spending thousands of dollars to eliminate one or two candidates, some of whom would be long shots.