Senate OKs primary runoff elections

DES MOINES — Sen. Brad Zaun, who felt cheated in a 2014 GOP primary where he was the top vote-getter but lost a congressional nomination at convention, got a consolation prize of sorts Wednesday when the Iowa Senate agreed to establish a runoff election process to decide future winners.

The Iowa Senate voted 49-0 to establish a runoff election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August between the two top vote-getters in a June primary if no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the ballots cast.

Currently, Iowa election law allows delegates to political party conventions to decide nominees for public office when no one reaches the 35 percent threshold in a contested primary with multiple candidates.

In Zaun’s case, the Urbandale senator finished first in a five-way GOP congressional primary but lost the nomination to eventual 3rd District U.S. Rep. David Young. The experience persuaded him to bring Iowa into the fold of states that have primary runoff elections.

“This is something that’s very important because I didn’t believe that the will of the people was heard that day,” Zaun argued on the Senate floor Wednesday in support of Senate File 483.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, agreed with Zaun’s bill and said he wished that he could make it retroactive.

“I think what happened epitomizes why people distrust politics. It makes them very cynical,” Bisignano said of the 2014 GOP primary outcome. “That’s not the will of the people, that was the will of the room and the politicians and the people that play the game. That’s what the voter out there doesn’t like.”

The bill, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, would apply to primary elections for statewide, congressional, legislative and county offices.

“I want to thank Brad for not giving up. This is an idea whose day has come in Iowa,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo. “It should not be a small group of insiders who choose our elected leaders, and in the current process that’s exactly what happens.”

Several Democrats noted that a similar situation where no candidate garnered at least 35 percent support ended with Kiron Republican Steve King winning the GOP nomination at convention and launching his congressional career.

Zaun said he was not pushing for the change as a “sore loser” but rather wanted to maximize voters’ voice in the election process.

“It doesn’t happen very often, but it certainly could happen to any of us at any time,” he said. “I have people that come to me on a daily basis and tell me, Zaun, you got the short end of the stick. We don’t want this to happen again. This lets the will of the people speak.”

Also Wednesday, Zaun was floor manager of a bill approved by senators on a 49-0 vote that would give immunity to 911 callers who are under the legal drinking age of 21 but need help in an emergency situation where underage drinking has taken place.

Senate File 415 would provide immunity from prosecution and college disciplinary sanctions for a student not of legal drinking age “where they’ve called 911 because one of their friends needs attention because of drinking,” Zaun said. The immunity, similar to laws in 36 other states, he said, would not extend to anyone already the subject of a criminal investigation or under correctional supervision and would not extend to emergency situations where illegal drugs were involved.

Zaun said the legislation was not intended to send a permissive message about violating underage drinking laws but was an acknowledgment that consumption of alcohol occurs on college campuses and attempts to address situations where “kids are scared to call the police.”

“This is common sense. This is about public safety at our universities,” Zaun said. “We all know that younger people don’t always make good decisions.”

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