Living in Society

Letting the Courts Decide

Abby Finkenauer campaigning.

On Friday, April 15, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision to remove U.S. Senate Candidate Abby Finkenauer from the June 7 Democratic primary ballot. The court was concerned with three signatures on Finkenauer’s nominating papers. There is plenty of news coverage about the 7-0 decision to put her back on the ballot so I won’t go into those details. I’m getting tired of the courts having to be involved in close calls regarding our elections.

Partly, my upbringing brought me to this place. My father worked hard to elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960. We discussed his neighborhood canvassing at the family dinner table. When he finished our neighborhood, the meat cutters union gave him another geography to canvass. It was my first awareness of elections and although Richard Nixon won Iowa that year, JFK won the presidency and I felt we benefited from having a Democrat in the White House.

When JFK was assassinated, and Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed the presidency, it was a shock. LBJ decided to run for reelection in 1964 and won in a landslide the likes of which have not been repeated. They didn’t need courts to decide diddly squat in 1964 because the margin of victory was so large. LBJ went on to pass a stunning amount of significant legislation. I assumed voters had seen the light and every presidential election would be like the one in 1964. I was young.

There have been recent close races. The 2000 election stands out as the one in which the U.S. Supreme Court got involved, stopped vote-counting in Florida, and effectively gave the win to George W. Bush. Those of us in Iowa’s Second Congressional District still feel the burn from the 2020 election in which Mariannette Miller-Meeks won by six votes over Rita Hart. Hart wisely decided to give up her appeals once it became clear the U.S. House of Representatives did not have the votes to pursue every legal recourse in her case. In retrospect, Hart had the votes to win, although she couldn’t get them recognized in time for state certification of the election, which prevailed. It rots when the vote is so close and the courts get involved.

I came of political age at a time when the basic tenant of elections was a campaign needed 50 percent of votes cast plus one to win. A win is a win, after all. I didn’t recognize it at the time, yet that was a turn for the worse. We became acculturated in the numbers and techniques of campaigning rather than standing for things as a first priority. My reeducation in this process began in 2004 and it has been a downward spiral ever since. That is, until I realized that Republicans had developed a better ground game and that Democrats couldn’t continue the way we were going and win.

Some progressives couldn’t believe Finkenauer had so few signatures on her petition that challenging three of them would get her thrown off the ballot. If 19 counties with at least 100 signatures in each is the bar, get 25 counties with 150 signatures in each, some opined. What else were Democrats doing in the weeks before the filing deadline?

I am neutral about Republicans challenging some of the petition filings. Was it political? Of course it was. Shame on the party that doesn’t review the opposition’s work for compliance. Finkenauer’s campaign took an unfortunate hit because of the incident. Can she recover and win the primary? She’s been leading in the polls and rank and file primary voters will likely take the lawsuit with a grain of salt and not change their voting plans. We’ll know for sure on June 8. If I were Finkenauer, I’d be working now to make sure she gets enough votes to win the primary outright and avoid a convention.

To be of any use to the electorate, Democrats should win every election outright, without needing courts to get involved. Finkenauer’s case highlights we are not there yet.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.