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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18 Responses to “Sales tax election to come down to one voter in failed gerrymandering attempt”

  1. DoverBill says:

    Can she request secret service protection or, at least, have someone inspect and start her car?

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  3. silas1898 says:

    They will either move two of their supporters into the “district” or just gerrymander it again.

    Republican economics. Only the “little people” should pay taxes.

  4. Skye Winspur says:

    Henderson’s polling ward is almost certainly not the same as this improvement district. It’s quite likely that her polling place is Hickman High School, and that there will be poll workers (not all volunteers – the city of Columbia can probably afford to pay them) living outside of that district who can conduct an “election.”

  5. Skye Winspur says:

    Jen Henderson definitely wins the civic virtue award for this month.

    There’s a booming little commercial district northeast of Madison, on the rural side of Interstate 90/94, that could (in a few years) turn out to look a lot like this Columbia improvement district. It is entirely plausible that developers in the district want to rig a sales tax increase to avoid supporting Madison city finances. Here’s hoping this little act of defiance might make them think twice.

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  8. perljammer says:

    Evil gerrymandering attempt aside, this situation is pretty interesting just because of its uniqueness.

    Polling place workers are typically volunteers who are registered voters from within the polling place’s district — does she have to run the polling place and be there from opening time to closing time if she wants to vote? What if she refuses to run the polling place? Does the election get cancelled?

    This is probably the only place in the country where a 100% turnout is pretty much guaranteed, unless she decides not to vote. In that case, it’s probably the only place in the country that will have a 0% turnout.

    If she votes ‘NO’, the measure fails. If she is prevented from voting, the measure fails. Looks to me like the Columbia city council is caught in a nasty trap of their own design.

  9. Carl Kerstann says:

    If i were her I’d grow eyes in the back of my head.

  10. zeiche says:

    Could she craft her own initiatives?

  11. olandp says:

    If this is a district, would she also get to select a city council person? Could she vote herself into the seat?

  12. Indigo says:

    That’s funny. It’s also tragic. It’s also a lesson in corrupt political trickery. It’s also Columbia, Missouri. I lived there for three years once upon a time in the last century. Interestingly, nothing has changed.

  13. Gindy51 says:

    In other words, a scam. RICO the assholes.

  14. Hue-Man says:

    Alternatively, has she asked for a security detail?

  15. kimn8r says:

    Jen Henderson is definitely the smartest person of the whole lot. When businessmen conspire against the general public, and contort the law to defraud, then they need to get called out and a national spotlight put on them. I hope Jen is comfortable in front of a camera, and that she is as articulate as her statements. This needs to get national attention because this is what is happening large scale to the rest of the nation.

  16. Naja pallida says:

    That this is even possible is definitive proof that our electoral system is totally broken, and entirely rigged in the favor of special interest partisans. Government of the people, by the people, for the people is nothing but a quaint notion from a past era.

  17. BeccaM says:

    This is an absolutely prime example of the corruption of America’s elections system. Never mind the fact the gerrymandering backfired, consider instead the motives and goals: They were trying to carve out a part of the United States of America and the state Missouri where public governance and fiscal policies would be determined not by the voters or their elected representatives, but by an autocratic collection of business property owners. A special tax paid indirectly to them for the purpose of paying off their debts and legal obligations.

    Because this was about a local sales tax increase, this was quite literally ‘taxation without representation.’ There’s another name for when corporations get to run the government, but I’ve been overusing that particular word lately in reference to the Beferreted One.

    Quite frankly, this entire notion of enacting taxes–or any other measure involving public policy–if there are no registered voters within a district ought to be declared unconstitutional.

  18. RepackRider says:

    When you have only one voter, pissing her off is probably not a good tactic.

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