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Tilly: UI votes early, not often

BY ZACH TILLY | NOVEMBER 06, 2013 5:00 AM

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Another city election is in the books: Susan Mims, Kingsley Botchway II (!), and Terry Dickens are our city councilors, and the 21-ordinance is still standing after a decisive vote that looks like the death knell for the repeal campaign.

Only one more thing to do before we can put this municipal election to bed — cue the hand-wringing over the poor turnout.

Indeed, at first glance, the stats look pretty bleak. Only 22 percent of Iowa City’s registered voters came out Tuesday. On campus, the numbers look even worse. At the two precincts for dorm residents — Quadrangle and the Main Library —80 votes were cast Tuesday. At two other precincts considered to be student-heavy, 45 and 35 people voted.

Lazy, lazy, disengaged students. 

But that’s not the whole story. The student-heavy precincts on campus outperformed the rest of Iowa City in terms of early voting. Among the residents of the Quad precinct, 545 (including 11 registered Libertarians) voted early, by far the highest pre-election turnout in the city. The Main Library precinct placed second with 468 early voters. 

Turnout at student precincts, when early voting is factored in, was actually higher than the overall city average.

The main difference between student voters and Iowa City’s townies seems not to be how much they vote, but rather how they vote.

Students were the beneficiaries of a strong early voting push that set up a number of satellite polling places in convenient areas beginning in mid-October.

When given a close, convenient option for voting, students were clearly willing to participate in the local elections. This could have positive implications for turnout citywide, if early voting options were to be expanded further.

But the rise of early voting also has a distinct downside. Early voting extends the window during which candidates and political activists have to reach potential voters, which makes campaigning (already a daunting task) even more difficult.

This isn’t a major problem for well-funded, well-staffed organizations like President Obama’s 2012 campaign, but it is considerably more problematic for less-organized efforts like that to repeal the 21-ordinance or for start-up candidates for local office. Extending the voting period from Election Day to a three-week period requires candidates to employ more resources to reach an increasingly decentralized electorate. 

Such efforts could be prohibitively costly for all but the most organized candidates and campaigns.

Extending the early voting season for weeks ahead of Election Day can also negatively affect voters, who may miss out on key information by voting early. In 2012, I voted quite early and subsequently changed my mind twice about the Johnson County Justice Center proposal once coverage in the local media ramped up ahead of Election Day.

Early voting is an undeniably great way to expand the franchise by making it less costly to vote (and such efforts may be necessary, given that 22 percent turnout figure), but any plans for expansion need to be managed carefully to reduce collateral damage.

Further expansion of early voting should focus on geographic, not temporal expansion. In other words, the county should offer more satellite voting sites around town for a shorter period of time — maybe a week or so — in order to maximize the benefits of early voting.


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