People all over the country vote by pulling levers, and, in a way, Emmetsburg, Iowa is no different. It’s just that in Emmetsburg people vote by pulling a different kind of lever. Since 1980, in the town’s peculiar, increasingly popular Cess Poll, Emmetsburg’s 4,621 citizens have been able to vote for their favorite candidate by…well, there’s no polite way to put this…by flushing their toilets.
“It was just one of those brainstorms,” says Cess Poll founder John Schad, 40, who owns radio station KEMB-FM. On caucus day, Schad, broadcasting from a remote hookup at the town’s water tower, announces the names of Presidential contenders and asks listeners to flush for their favorite. After each name is read Schad checks to see how much water has flowed from the tower. At five gallons a flush, the water drops approximately an inch for every 135 votes cast. There is, of course, some inadvertent voting, but for the most part, says Schad, “it’s been a pretty good indicator.” The Cess Poll correctly predicted that Iowa, in the 1980 Democratic caucus, would pick Jimmy Carter over Ted Kennedy roughly 2 to 1.
The fact that Emmetsburg is the seat of Iowa’s bellwether Palo Alto county, which has voted for the winner in every Presidential election since 1896, only adds to the Cess Poll’s aura. Alas, this year’s poll, which focused on the Democratic candidates, yielded only so-so results: Walter Mondale finished first, followed by John Glenn, Gary Hart, George McGovern and Jesse Jackson (tied), and Alan Cranston and Ernest Hollings (tied). Askew’s supporters were too few to measure. The real caucus results were: Mondale, Hart, McGovern, Cranston, Glenn, Askew, Jackson and Hollings.
A Mondale press aide called the Cess Poll results “wonderful,” and even Glenn’s camp found some cause for optimism. “See,” said Glenn aide Debra Phillips, “we haven’t gone down the drain like everybody said.”