When voters in Ward 1 on Des Moines’ northwest side went to the polls last Tuesday, they didn’t have to wait in line long. Only 2,960 people cast ballots in the runoff election. The total number of participants was less than 1 in 10 registered voters in the ward. Some might say this is a good argument for getting rid of the runoff election as a way to decide races where none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote. But the turnout was only 1,200 fewer than the 4,168 who showed up four weeks earlier in the general election when five candidates were on the ballot. The runoff is one of two options most Iowa cities can use to elect council members and mayors under state law. The other option is to hold a primary election. Some cities in the United States — including Minneapolis — have adopted the so-called instant runoff system. In that system, voters mark not just their top pick. They also rank their second choice, third choice and so on, depending on how many names are on the ballot. The votes cast for the candidates with the fewest votes are reallocated until a candidate accumulates more than 50 percent.
There’s been talk in Iowa lately of replacing primaries in partisan elections with municipal-style runoffs. If no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the total votes cast, the nomination is made at a convention of party delegates (think smoke-filled room).
This is relevant for Iowans next year, as Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich wrote recently, because “there are seven candidates in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. There are six Democrats vying for the nomination in the 1st Congressional District.”