Full disclosure: Adam Sullivan is a member of the Iowa City Charter Review Commission. The following viewpoints are his own.
Our founding fathers thought petitioning the government was such an important right, they put it right there in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It doesn’t get as much exposure as the freedom of speech and religion, but it’s still there—right at the top of the Bill of Rights.
The ‘right to petition the government’ is generally taken to mean that you can complain to your elected officials, but here in Iowa City, that right is underlined and bolded. Iowa City residents can organize legally binding petitions to adopt new ordinances or change existing ones. It’s an exceptional democratic experiment, and for the most part, it’s worked out well for our community.
But not everyone is allowed to participate in the petitioning process. If you’re a tax-paying, law-abiding Iowa City resident but you haven’t gotten around to filling out voter registration paperwork, our city charter says your signature doesn’t count.
That charter—our city government’s founding document—calls for its own review at least once per decade. The current Charter Review Commission—which consists of myself and eight other Iowa City residents appointed by the City Council—is considering changing the requirements for who can sign a petition.
Iowa City is one of just two places in the state where citizens can launch petitions to change the city code or pass new ordinances, and if an initiative or referendum petition gets enough valid signatures, the council has to either adopt the proposal or send it to voters for a simple majority vote.
However, only signatures from so-called qualified electors—those who are currently registered to vote in Iowa City—are counted. Signatures from many so-called eligible electors—signatures from those who are eligible to register, but who aren’t currently registered in Iowa City—are disregarded.
In one instance, a group of petitioners had 40 percent of their signatures are thrown out.
In 2013, a group of citizen-activists organized an effort to ban automated traffic enforcement devices. They thought they’d met the 2,500 signatures required to advance their proposal, but after the signatures were checked against voter registration rolls, they came up short.
They eventually met the requirement, but only after gathering around 4,300 signatures in total. Some 1,800 surplus signatures didn’t count because they couldn’t be verified as registered voters.
Some supporters of the current standards say that this encourages people to register, or that it’s the least someone can do if they want their say. One local commentator was quoted in the Press-Citizen saying, “If a citizen doesn’t care enough about their government to register to vote, why should I care what they want?”
It’s along the same line of thinking as “you can’t complain if you don’t vote.” It’s a nice slogan, but it’s not true. People who don’t vote still have to pay taxes, can still be fined by the government and can still be detained if they’re accused of breaking laws. Of course they can—and should—complain about their government.
And since election voting is actually a relatively ineffective way to change your government, it shouldn’t be any wonder why so many people avoid voting in the first place. If people choose not to register, should they be shut out of political participation altogether?
The whole distinction between “qualified” and “eligible” voters is contrary to the spirit of Iowa politics. Since the last Charter Review Commission met, Iowa law has changed to allow us to register to vote on election day at our polling places. That process eliminates the distinction between voters and non-voters—all eligible adults have the same right to walk into their polling place and vote, regardless of prior paperwork.
Meanwhile, city staff spend considerable time checking petitions against voter registration rolls. The restrictions are far greater than we require for signatures on politicians’ candidacy petitions, which are counted as long as they have a qualifying address.
Some constituents I’ve heard from are also worried—myself included—about whose signatures are being thrown out. People who are new to our community are among the most likely not to have a valid local registration, and because we know young people and poor people tend to be more transient, we have to carefully consider who we’re excluding from the petition process.
The debate over Iowa City’s petition rules has earned the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. Their lawyers have written to the commission, pointing out that state law prescribes a petition process much less stringent than Iowa City’s. According to Iowa Code, petitions are valid if they include signatures from “eligible electors, equal to 10 percent of the number of voters in the previous city election. The signers only have to be “eligible electors,” and the petition only needs signatures equal to 10 percent of the voters in the previous city council election. In Iowa City, that would be be about 1,000—far fewer than the 2,500-plus required by the city charter.
Our city attorney disagrees with the ACLU’s interpretation, saying that portion of the Iowa code doesn’t apply to initiative and referendum petitions that are permitted through city charter code. Since I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know about the legal question. What I do know is that easing the petition standards wouldn’t hurt us. Say there is a silly or misguided petition that scrapes together a thousand signatures, the worst that could happen is that it would go on a ballot. Reasonable people that we are, we would reject it.
So what are we afraid of? A little bit of democracy?