Sales tax election to come down to one voter in failed gerrymandering attempt

The concept of “one person, one vote” just got taken to a whole new level in Columbia, Missouri, as one college student will decide the fate of a proposed sales tax increase in a local business district. The one-vote election is the result of a flubbed attempt by local business owners to use sales taxes to avoid property taxes in a suspect community development plan.

The story is nuts.

Under Missouri state law, any sales tax increases need to be approved by the voters in the district, unless the district contains no registered voters. In April, in response to a petition local property owners, Columbia’s city council approved the creation of the Business Loop 70 Community Improvement District, which the owners thought contained no registered voters. However, precisely one person — a student at the University of Missouri — registered to vote at an address within the district’s boundaries in February.

This matters because the owners need the sales tax increase to pass in order for the city to pay for debts it has incurred through capital improvement projects they have recently undertaken. Without a sales tax increase, the city will have to raise property taxes in the district.

By drawing a district with no registered voters, the owners would be able to set the sales tax rate, thereby covering costs. That all went out the window when they were informed that they’d mistakenly gerrymandered one voter into their district, despite making a concerted effort to draw around student housing.

The district looks like this:

As explained by the Columbia Tribune:

For more than a year and a half, as property owners in the “Loop” area worked to get the CID and tax increases established, they banked on that sales tax vote being their own.

When asked if the CID would be financially viable without the sales tax increase, [CID Executive Director Carrie] Gartner said “no.”

Gartner said the CID has incurred “significant debt” the district hoped to pay down through the tax, including more than $100,000 it owes the city and for legal representation, $55,000 owed to Jack Miller of True Media and a $60,000 line of credit with Landmark Bank.

The CID representatives have behaved exactly as one would expect entrenched business interests to behave when backed in a corner in a one-person election. The registered voter in question, Jen Henderson, has reportedly been contacted by property owners in the district, asking her to de-register so as to allow the property owners to hold their election on their terms. To Henderson’s credit, she has both refused to de-register and called out the property owners for trying to manipulate the district for their financial gain. She also expressed concern over the regressive nature of sales taxes, suggesting that she is inclined to vote no.

As Stephen Wolf at DailyKos Elections points out, that would turn out to be an impressive lesson in failed election-rigging, writing, “Most of the time gerrymandering is successful and unfair, but instances like this show it can sometimes backfire spectacularly.”

If you’re going to rig an election, make sure you actually rig the election.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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