The next step for reform is to eliminate the March and September special election dates and consolidate all matters, other than those to fill immediate and urgent vacancies, on November ballots.
November 7th was significant this year because it was the first election since the enactment of a wide-ranging package of property tax reforms. Among the provisions of that package were a restriction of bond elections to November and a requirement for county auditors to mail every registered voter a notice of the public measure on the ballot prior to election day. The goal was to increase voter turnout and citizen engagement in bond elections, which are among the primary drivers of Iowa’s high property taxes, and although gains remain to be made, the reform worked.
Local bond elections were not tracked until Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation analyzed the March 2023 bond election, which is our single point of comparison. The level of participation on March 7 showed that Iowa citizens are not as aware of the many special elections that occur throughout the year as they are of the elections that take place each November. Moving bond elections to November and providing direct notification to registered voters had a significant positive effect on voter turnout.
Overall, the March special election saw an average turnout of 29.71% across 22 districts. The low was 5.08% voter turnout for the Hawkeye Community College bond, and the high was 53.63% for the Irwin, Kirkman, and Manilla (IKM) Manning Community School District (CSD) bond.
In November, 45 bonds appeared on ballots, and the average voter turnout was 36%. The City of Burlington had the lowest, with 15.8%, while IKM Manning CSD again garnered the highest voter turnout, with 56% for its second bond proposal of the year. Thus, overall turnout for all locations increased by about 20% (six percentage points).
The following table compares the results in jurisdictions that conducted elections on both days.
What Is Next?
The shift of all bond elections to November continues a trend of legislation aimed at increasing voter turnout in Iowa. The Iowa Legislature passed a bill in 2017 moving school board elections from September to November. The first election for which school and city elections were held on the same day came in November 2019, and turnout increased 156% compared with the previous four school elections.
Nonetheless, turnout has remained very low for other races on special election dates. Iowa law allows special elections in March and September, and other special elections have been permitted on any Tuesday except for those before and after primary and general elections.
This has meant when a city, county, or school district wanted to make a change or increase its tax rates, voters have been less aware, and turnout considerably lower. Non-bond matters continue to have this problem. Pottawattamie County provided a recent example when it held a special election on August 1, 2023, asking how its board of supervisors would be elected. To answer this important procedural question, only 12.8% of registered voters turned out.
The next step for reform is to eliminate the March and September special election dates and consolidate all matters, other than those to fill immediate and urgent vacancies, on November ballots. If that is not possible, or to make even greater improvements, more provisions like the direct notification for bonds would increase voter awareness and turnout.
Whether they are for major changes or minutia, questions that require the input of voters affect Iowans’ daily lives. Government insiders and special interests have the time and incentive to follow these matters very closely, disadvantaging voters, who deserve every consideration. School-election and bond reforms prove our state is headed in the right direction, but more must be done.