Letter from Andrew Dunn: The way Iowa City elects city councilors is broken. Here’s how we fix it.

The Iowa City Council meets on Tuesday, May 4, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

By Andrew Dunn, Iowa City Councilor At-Large

Confusion has long been a staple of Iowa City’s local elections. The Iowa City Council has two types of councilors, all elected to four-year terms. First, we have four at-large councilors that the entire city elects. Our four at-large councilors have no restrictions on where they can live in the community. Second, we have three district council members who each must live in their respective districts.

The average person familiar with government would reasonably believe that only district residents vote for their district council member. In Iowa City, that’s not the case. District council members must be elected by the entire city, not just district voters. Every Iowa City voter gets a vote in every council race. We functionally elect every councilor at large. This system strangely results in primary elections that also deviate from expectations. One might think that if all city elections were functionally at-large, primary elections would be the same. In Iowa City, as many learned in the Oct. 10 District A primary election, only district residents can participate in a district primary.

This level of complexity is, at best, extremely confusing for voters, and at worst, a systemic barrier to change and minority representation on the City Council. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “Under [an at-large] system, the votes of voters of color often are drowned out or submerged by the votes of a majority of white voters who often do not support the candidates preferred by Black voters.”

Iowa City appointed our first Black mayor in 2006. According to a 2018 University of Houston report, “At-large districts were the most common form of representation in most local offices until the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.” The system doesn’t just dilute the voting power of communities of color. In 2015, a study by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto listed Iowa City as the 14th most economically segregated community in America. Until my election this year, 34 years had passed since a renter (Karen Kubby, 1989-2000) was elected to the Iowa City City Council. As high-rises keep going up, old homes get leveled, mobile home parks become investment opportunities for bloodsucking out-of-state private equity firms, and the cost of buying a home keeps rising, we deserve a city council that reflects our community’s diversity to address these issues. That’s why I’m proposing an amendment to the Iowa City Charter that will fundamentally change how our elections work. My proposal entails three paths:

Path 1: Amend the Iowa City City Charter so that district council members are directly elected by the voters of the district they reside in. This would be implemented after the next two city council elections. This proposal would not change the number of at-large council members.

Path 2: Amend the Iowa City City Charter to abolish the position of “At-Large Councilmember” and replace the seats on the council with district councilmembers, to be directly elected by the voters of their respective districts. This would be implemented after the next two council elections.

Path 3: Amend the Iowa City City Charter to abolish the district system in its entirety and replace district council seats with at-large positions. This could be implemented immediately.

Paths 1 and 2 would lower the barrier to entry for prospective candidates by reducing the number of voters who need to be contacted. That means less money spent on mailers, literature, and yard signs and more time with voters face to face. Path 3, on the other hand, provides the least confusion for voters while also risking the possibility of councilmembers being geographically clustered in one part of town and therefore being less holistically representative of greater Iowa City. It also accounts for the fact that this decision is a political one that the community and City Council must decide. If there isn’t a will to move forward with one of the first two paths, the least we can do is eliminate the confusion the current system causes. Our community needs an election system that promotes justice, equity, and democratic representation. The current system fails to achieve this. Everybody deserves a seat at the table. These changes will create a more representative and resilient city council that we all deserve.