Experts say 21-only vote to be a close race


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Advocates and opponents in the ever present 21-ordinance discussion have spoken. Campaigns have run. Fingers have been crossed.

After five months of Iowa City being a 21-only town, voters will decide today whether to uphold or repeal the controversial measure.

“Nothing has created more conversation in this city in the 12 years I’ve been on the council,” City Councilor Connie Champion said.

History of the 21-ordinance

The city was primed for a 21-ordinance debate with the 2007 ballot measure, when voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposal — 57 percent voted against it.

But this year, the situation is different.

Instead of bar-hopping 19and 20-year olds being threatened with a removal of a right, they are now up against the continuation of the 21-only status quo. And pro-21 campaign efforts seem to be drawing in more support than in 2007, bringing in more donations and high-profile endorsements from such figures as Hawkeye football Coach Kirk Ferentz and University of Iowa President Sally Mason.

The election has also already seen much higher voting figures, with Congressional and gubernatorial races drawing in larger droves. “Everything’s bigger this time,” said anti-21 organizer Matt Pfaltzgraf, noting groups have seen more volunteers, more community involvement, and expanded outreach. “There’s really not one aspect of this that hasn’t grown exponentially.”

Local experts have said they believe this year’s race to be closer than in 2007.

Community members 18 years old and over are split nearly down the middle on the issue, according to a recent study conducted by UI political-science Associate Professor Frederick Boehmke, which surveyed 228 residents.

Boehmke, who studies voting behavior and policy adoption, said passion from both sides will stay high as long as the outcome changes or is close during a vote.

If the ordinance is repealed, city officials may bring it back to the table exactly two years later, possibly resulting in another vote.

If the vote goes “back and forth,” between “yes” and “no” over the years, Boehmke said, people will likely become frustrated with the process.

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek — who was publicly against the ordinance in 2007 — brought the issue before the City Council in March. Councilors voted on April 6 to implement the 21 ordinance, which went into effect June 1.

Hayek has said the councilors turned to the 21-only rule as a last resort, noting the city has few options to control underage and binge drinking within the bars.

“Unlike our neighbors in Nebraska to the west and Illinois to the east, Iowa law severely restricts what a local municipality can do to go after bars that are unable or unwilling to control their environments,” Hayek said.

Hayek referred to Lincoln, Neb., and Champaign, Ill., as cities that had success in fighting underage drinking either by fining bars for PAULA-like citations or forcing problem bars to turn 21-only.

“In my capacity on the City Council, I have seen firsthand how little power the city has to target individual problem bars,” Hayek said. “If we had had such power, we would not have taken up the 21-ordinance, but the reality is we do not.”

The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division struck down the city’s PAULA-to-police-visit ratio, for example, saying it was unconstitutional.

The highest age turnout for early voting so far is the 65 and older crowd, with around 57 percent or 3,057 — having voted so far compared with 810 in 2007. For the 18-24 group, 6,983 voters have cast ballots, compared to 4,608 to three years ago, according to the Johnson County Auditor’s website.

And neither side is showing any sign of letting up.

21 Makes Sense campaign manager Nick Westergaard said the group is continuing to take out advertisements in print and radio through election day.

Pfaltzgraf said in the few days leading up to the election, volunteers knocked on more than 6,000 doors.

“It’s important that we keep the faith and keep working hard — we can’t be tired and give up,” he said.

DI reporters Hayley Bruce and Allie Wright contributed to this report.

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