If all Iowa candidates had to win under rules Republicans forced on unions

“There’s not one Republican in this state that could win an election under the rules they gave us,” asserted AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan after the first round of public union recertification elections ended this week.

He was only slightly exaggerating.

A review of the last two general election results shows that Iowa’s capitol would be mostly devoid of office-holders if candidates for statewide and legislative races needed a majority vote among all their constituents–rather than a plurality among those who cast ballots–to be declared winners.


Iowa’s new collective bargaining law was a multifaceted Republican assault on public employees and labor unions. One provision requires recertification elections in every bargaining unit before every new contract negotiation.

In a creative twist, the law stipulates that in order to be recertified, unions must receive “yes” votes from a majority of covered employees in each bargaining unit. Anyone who does not participate in the election is counted as a vote against the union.

Thirty-two of the 468 bargaining units that held elections this month failed to recertify the union to handle the next contract negotiation. In most of them, a clear majority of employees who voted by phone or online were in favor of continuing the union representation. Only five bargaining units recorded more “no” votes than “yes.”

No one would propose counting every non-participant as a vote for one side in any real election. Still, I wondered how our state lawmakers would have fared if this idiotic and unfair system were applied to Iowa’s other campaigns.


I compared the 2016 results for state legislative races to the number of registered voters living in each Iowa House and Senate district, as of November 2016. (Looking at the number of eligible voters would be a better analogy, but there are no reliable statistics on Iowans who are eligible but unregistered.)

Across the 25 state Senate districts that were on the ballot last year, only three candidates would have been elected. All were running unopposed. Republicans Randy Feenstra and Ken Rozenboom received 27,522 votes and 23,768 votes, respectively. That’s more than half of the 41,269 registered voters in Senate district 2 and 42,543 registered voters in Senate district 40.

Democratic Senator Janet Petersen received 20,388 votes, representing far more than half of the 37,206 registered voters in Senate district 18.

Every other senator elected last year failed to clear the 50 percent threshold among all registered voters in their districts. They included five GOP senators who received more than 20,000 votes (Mark Segebart, Jake Chapman, Mark Costello, Brad Zaun, and Dan Zumbach). Amy Sinclair would have been a narrow loser under the recertification rules. With no Democratic challenger and one independent opponent, she received 19,482 votes in Senate district 14 but would have needed 19,872 votes to claim a majority of registered voters.

I was surprised to learn that 20 of the 100 current Iowa House members received affirmative support in 2016 from more than half the number of registered voters in their districts. The following twelve Republicans were running unopposed.

John Wills: 14,627 votes in House district 1 (23,135 registered voters)
Megan Jones: 12,756 votes in House district 2 (21,923 registered voters)
Dan Huseman: 12,096 votes in House district 3 (21,454 registered voters)
Mike Sexton: 13,063 votes in House district 10 (21,212 registered voters)
Steven Holt: 10,603 votes in House district 18 (18,699 registered voters)
Tom Moore: 11,716 votes in House district 21 (21,176 registered voters)
Cecil Dolecheck: 11,702 votes in House district 24 (20,054 registered voters)
Joel Fry: 9,478 votes in House district 27 (18,813 registered voters)
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer: 12,675 votes in House district 54 (21,158 registered voters)
Bobby Kaufmann: 12,388 votes in House district 73 (21,548 registered voters)
Guy Vander Linden: 12,615 votes in House district 79 (21,826 registered voters)
Gary Mohr: 14,696 votes in House district 94 (27,323 registered voters)

Three Republicans who had Democratic challengers still managed to win enough votes to be elected under the GOP-mandated approach to union recertifications.

Chuck Holz: 11,774 votes in House district 5 (21,799 registered voters)
Matt Windschitl: 10,712 votes in House district 17 (20,092 registered voters)
Pat Grassley: 11,493 votes in House district 50 (21,317 registered voters)

Under the same rules, five Democrats would have been elected to the Iowa House in 2016. None had a general election opponent.

Jo Oldson: 13,363 votes in House district 41 (23,327 registered voters)
Art Staed: 11,669 votes in House district 66 (21,977 registered voters)
Kirsten Running-Marquardt: 10,730 votes in House district 69 (21,079 registered voters)
Dave Jacoby: 12,839 votes in House district 74 (22,731 registered voters)
Curt Hanson: 10,488 votes in House district 82 (20,550 registered voters)

You may have noticed that the registered voter total varies quite a bit among Iowa legislative districts. Aren’t those supposed to represent roughly equal numbers of people? In theory, yes. But over the course of a decade between the drawing of political maps, some districts in larger metro areas gain population, while others lose residents.

Demographic factors are important too. Districts with large numbers of immigrants, or lower-income neighborhoods, or many families with young children, will have fewer registered voters. Conversely, affluent districts tend to have more adults with a college degree, who are more likely to register to vote. Districts covering state university campuses have large numbers of adult residents with no children, so a larger percentage of people living there can vote.

If results had been tabulated like the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board calculated this month’s union recertification votes, a bunch of Republicans representing booming suburban areas would have lost last year, including rising star Zach Nunn in House district 30 (Altoona area), John Landon in House district 37 (Ankeny), and Jake Highfill in House district 39 (Grimes, Johnston). In Iowa’s fastest-growing county, Rob Taylor ran unopposed in House district 44 (Waukee) and gained 13,818 votes–not good enough in an area with 29,170 registered voters.

Another striking example: State Representative Vicki Lensing represents parts of Iowa City, including the University of Iowa campus. Even though the 15,213 votes for her exceeded every other House candidate’s showing, Lensing’s total was below 50 percent of the 31,454 registered voters in House district 85.

Not convinced yet that the GOP’s union recertification rules are a monumentally dumb way to determine election winners?

Consider: Iowans gave U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley a seventh term with an impressive 926,007 votes out of 1,581,371 ballots cast. Trouble is, the Secretary of State’s office says Iowa had 2,171,161 registered voters last November. Grassley would have needed 1,085,581 votes to reach support from a majority of all voters statewide.


Iowa’s collective bargaining law doesn’t just require public-sector unions to jump through the recertification hoop once for each bargaining unit. The union must keep winning under those circumstances before every contract period. I wondered how such rules might alter the outcome for other Iowa office-seekers.

Voter participation in Iowa’s midterm elections typically is about a third lower than in a presidential year. Examining the 2014 results, we see how a lower-turnout environment would create almost insurmountable hurdles for candidates.

Iowa had 2,142,304 registered voters in November 2014, so candidates running statewide would have needed at least 1,071,153 votes (one more than 50 percent) to be elected.

No one on the statewide ballot came close. Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey won by the largest margin with 675,781 votes. But that was almost 400,000 short of the level needed for an absolute majority among Iowa registered voters.

Other candidates who would have been losers under the recertification system: Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds (666,032 votes), Attorney General Tom Miller (616,711 votes), State Auditor Mary Mosiman (604,103 votes), U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (588,575 votes), State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald (576,942 votes), and Secretary of State Paul Pate (529,275 votes).

If every non-voter had been counted as opposing the choice on the ballot, no one would have been elected in any of the 25 Iowa Senate districts up for grabs in 2014. Even the candidates with no opponents were all at least 3,000 votes below the 50 percent level. Then Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix came the closest, receiving 18,267 votes in Senate district 25. A majority of all voters living in his district would work out to 21,295 people.

The Iowa Senate district with the largest number of registered voters in November 2014 (58,601) was Senate district 43, covering much of Iowa City and the university campus. Taking the approach Republicans mandated for recertification elections, Democratic Senator Joe Bolkcom would have needed 29,301 people to check the box next to his name–hard to manage when just 23,142 people cast ballots in his district.

Only one of the 100 state representatives could have been elected to the Iowa House in 2014 under these rules. Lacking a challenger in the state’s most Republican seat, long-serving incumbent Dwayne Alons received 11,125 votes, more than half of the 19,193 registered voters living in House district 4.

The 99 losers under this system would have included then House Speaker Kraig Paulsen (9,405 votes in House district 67, which had 22,673 registered voters) and then House Majority Leader Upmeyer (9,569 votes in House district 54, which had 21,531 registered voters).

To sum up, Democrats and labor leaders who have claimed Republicans couldn’t win elections under the rules they forced on public-sector unions are mostly correct. Some contenders in politically lopsided legislative districts might clear that threshold in a presidential year, especially when running unopposed. But in a midterm with lower turnout across the board, even popular candidates would find it nearly impossible to win if all the non-participants were counted against them.

JANUARY 2018 UPDATE: Democratic State Representative Bruce Hunter introduced a bill that would require candidates to win “a number of votes equal to at least half the number of registered voters eligible to cast a ballot for the office.” If no candidate meets that threshold, a runoff election would be held between the top two vote-getters, paid for by the candidates or their campaign committees. In addition, the bill would change state law so that when any public initiative or constitutional amendment is on the ballot, Iowans who do not cast ballots in that election are counted as votes against the measure.

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  • Not to undercut the larger point...

    …but are you using ACTIVE registrations or, as I suspect, TOTAL registrations? Johnson County always has the highest numbers of inactive status registrations in the state and those numbers were unusually high in fall 2016.

    • I used total registrations

      because that was a closer approximation to the total number of adults in the district.

      If I had used active registrants (23,811 in HD-85 as of November 1, 2016), Lensing would have been well beyond the 50 percent threshold. But that wouldn’t include the people who registered during the final week before election day.