Scott County Democrats face huge organizing challenge

Scott County’s three Republican supervisors voted on May 25 to appoint Kerri Tompkins as the county’s new auditor, having considered no other candidates for the position, and giving members of the public no opportunity to comment.

The vacancy arose when Democratic Auditor Roxanna Moritz resigned just a few months into a four-year term. The three Republicans on the five-member board did not solicit applications for the vacancy or interview candidates. Rather, they decided to appoint Tompkins in a backroom deal, possibly violating Iowa’s open records law in the process.

The two Democrats on the Board of Supervisors wanted to hold a special election to determine Moritz’s replacement, but they didn’t have the votes to make it happen.

Local Democrats are trying to petition for a special election. But a law Republicans enacted earlier this year will make that task much more difficult.

Senate File 413 gained national media attention and prompted a lawsuit because of its manifold restrictions on voting, approved by Iowa House and Senate Republicans and signed by Governor Kim Reynolds. One of the bill’s lesser-known sections reduced the time available for voters to petition for an election to fill a county vacancy.

Iowa Code Chapter 331.306 states that a petition for a special election to a county office must be “signed by eligible electors of the county equal in number to at least ten percent of the votes cast” in the previous presidential or gubernatorial election. Scott County residents cast 93,053 ballots in the 2020 general election. That record-setting turnout translates to a minimum of 9,305 valid signatures for the current petition drive. CORRECTION: Subtracting the overvotes and undervotes, Scott County residents cast 92,599 ballots for president in 2020. The petition drive would require 9,260 signatures.

Under previous law, that petition would need to be filed with the county auditor within fourteen days of supervisors appointing someone to the vacant position. Republican State Senator Roby Smith, who represents a Scott County district, wrote a provision into Senate File 413 requiring petitions to be “circulated” within that fourteen-day window as well. A new sentence in Iowa Code stipulates, “A signature shall not be considered valid if the signature is dated prior to the date on which the appointment was made.”

The old law would have allowed Democrats to start collecting signatures in March (when Moritz announced plans to step down the following month), or at least on May 13 (when Republican supervisors voted to fill the vacancy by appointment). Instead, they were unable to launch the petition drive until the supervisors named Tompkins during their special meeting on May 25. And they must file by June 8 at the latest.

Political organizers always try to collect far more than the minimum number of signatures, since some will inevitably be ruled invalid. Scott County Democratic Party chair Elesha Gayman set a goal of collecting more than 10,000 signatures, but it would be safer to shoot for 12,000 or more. Mass gatherings or crowded locations in the Quad Cities area are likely to attract many people who live in a different Iowa county, or across the river in Illinois. Only Scott County residents who are eligible to vote count toward the signature requirement.

How can Democrats collect nearly 1,000 signatures a day in just two weeks? The Scott County Democrats are using social media to find volunteers. They have shifts available on every day between now and June 8, focusing on circulating petitions in different neighborhoods. The Iowa Democratic Party also sent an email blast to their entire statewide list, looking for phone bankers to identify volunteers willing to collect signatures in Scott County.

Former member of Congress Dave Loebsack has endorsed the petition drive, U.S. Representative Cindy Axne urged supporters to donate to Scott County Democrats, and Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls is spending part of the holiday weekend in the Quad Cities to collect signatures. They will need a small army of helpers to hit their targets. Knocking doors can be an effective way to fill petitions but is time-consuming.

P.S.–The language on petitioning for special elections wasn’t the only favor Smith did this year for Republicans in his home county. He also wrote a provision in Senate File 413 to allow Scott County Supervisor John Maxwell to keep serving in that capacity, despite being elected to a second office (the North Scott school board).

Republican lawmakers should not let Smith use election bills as a concierge service for Scott County Republicans.

UPDATE: Local Democrats fell about 3,000 signatures short of the number needed to force a special election. Tompkins will serve through 2022 as the only Republican auditor in a county Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden carried.

Top image: Cropped from a photo of two volunteers posted on the Scott County Democrats Facebook page.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin