Ballot instructions generate confusion

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Susan Patterson Plank
Executive Director, Iowa Newspaper Association

During the Iowa Legislative session in 2017, then Governor Terry Branstad signed House File 566 into law a bill requiring joint school and city elections. According to the Secretary of State’s Office the last four school elections, the voter turnout average was 6.5% and the average voter turnout for city elections was 21.3%.

Combining elections seemed like a no brainer— the intention was to increase voter participation and to save taxpayers’ costs.

It’s worth noting that the district boundaries for city councils and school boards are often different in many places in the state of Iowa. Some lawmakers at the time expressed concern about possible confusion.

An informed public is critical— as is voting. We are a democracy because we elect a government by voting. Voting is the most important way that we express our opinions for what we believe in. As part of preparing to vote many people review the ballot they will see on election day. They can do that because ballots are published in newspapers.

Iowa code 49.53 requires that a facsimile of the portion of the ballot containing the first rotation showing the names of all candidates or nominees and the office each seeks.

So, what does that mean? It means the public gets to see what the ballot will actually look like, who is running and for what office. If the ballots rotate the names—only one version needs to be provided. Put another way—if there are three candidates, they may appear on the sample ballot in alphabetical order—but the actual ballot may rotate the names. Sally Adams may be at the top of the ballot for you, but when your neighbor votes, Sally Adams by be the second name. That’s what “first rotation” means.

That all makes perfect sense. Combining elections hopefully increases voter turnout and engagement. Preparing to vote by reviewing the ballot does too. Whatever can be done to increase the public’s awareness and increase the likelihood of voting is good for everyone.

But this week—my phone started ringing. And it started ringing because the Secretary of the State’s office is instructing auditors that they may run only one ballot even though there are multiple races that a voter will be voting in and then just listing the remaining candidates.

We do not believe this is a correct reading of Iowa law and accordingly, instructs auditors to provide the public with insufficient notice of the upcoming elections in violation of Iowa law. Nothing in House File 566 amended the notice and publication requirements of Iowa Code 49.53 and to encourage a practice that potentially makes voting more confusing, when we want more people to be informed and more people to vote may put our elections in jeopardy.

I hope there aren’t any close races.

Note to Publishers: The Iowa Newspaper Association is working to resolve this issue. In the meantime, please understand that all newspapers should print the ballot(s) that is provided to them.