All bonded indebtedness, voted levies, and other revenue or spending questions that directly affect property taxes should be placed on November election ballots for the greatest possible participation of the electorate.
On March 7, 2023, 22 taxing authorities spread across 35 Iowa counties held special elections that included bond questions totaling nearly $400 million in potential new spending. A majority of the state’s population, 57%, lived in counties with a bond referendum, and residents of these counties faced increases of their property taxes to pay for the proposed debt. The results are in – 13 of the bond questions passed while nine failed, for a total of $138 million in new debt across the state.
The most interesting story, however, is not which measures passed or failed, but the voter turnout for these very important spending decisions. Approximately 93% of eligible Iowans are registered to vote and Iowa is regularly one of the top states nationwide for voter registration and participation. However, when comparing the voter turnout of the March 2023 Special Election to the November 2022 General Election turnout, there is a stark difference.
Overall, the March Special Election had an average turnout of 29.71% across the 22 districts with bond questions on their ballot. The low being 5.08% voter turnout for the Hawkeye Community College bond and the high being 53.63% for the IKM Manning Community School District bond. When we compare the 2022 November Election turnout for each district’s control county*, the turnout averaged 66.40% with Johnson County being the highest at 70.03% and Page County the lowest at 58.72%.
Iowans are broadly aware that elections take place in November each even-numbered year, but voters don’t have the same awareness about the many special elections that may occur at other points on the calendar. Taxpayers must keep an eye on March, September, and odd-year Novembers, as well. Many of these special elections include financial questions that directly affect property taxes for everybody in the area. Yet, voter turnout for these questions is typically a fraction of that achieved during general elections.
Because of the low voter turnout for these special elections, a handful of voters can commit everyone in their district to borrow money and increase their property taxes. Years ago, state lawmakers noticed that school elections were not producing the voter turnout other elections received (averaging 6.7%). To remedy this situation, the legislature passed HF566 in 2017, moving school elections from September to November and the result increased school election voter turnout by 150%.
It is time for the legislature to make a similar election change with the same goal of increasing voter engagement. All bonded indebtedness, voted levies, and other revenue or spending questions that directly affect property taxes should be placed on November election ballots for the greatest possible participation of the electorate. Iowa code already recognizes the gravity of bond issue decisions, requiring a 60% threshold for passage rather than a simple majority. Exceptions may be made for financial issues that arise in direct response to natural disasters or other public emergencies.
More details of each March 7, 2023, special bond election, including turnout comparisons, can be found by clicking this link.
*The control county is the county having the greatest taxable base within the political subdivision of the election.