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The race is on to choose a new Iowa license plate
by Dan Brawner Columnist · August 24th, 2017

Iowans will soon be getting new license plates. Who cares? Well, it turns out a lot of people care. At the Iowa Department of Transportation booth at the Iowa State Fair (yes, the IDOT had its own booth) more than 85,000 people voted on Aug. 10 alone for their favorite of three possible license plate designs.

At the same time, Christina Andersen, one of the graphic designers who produced the three license plate options, received more than 5,000 e-mails over two days telling her the designs were boring, amateurish and show she has "the talent of a third-grader" and ought to be fired from her job. Yikes.

Personally, I like the license plate design we have now. Its simple white silhouette of farm and industry shows up the numbers clearly and does what a license plate is supposed to do. The new options are okay. One is similar to what we have now with the silhouette as a narrow band on the top of the plate and a foreground of what looks like pale green grass that looks like it needs mowing.

Another design, called "Flying Our Colors," is a ghostly image of some kind of bird against a white background. Not really evocative of Iowa, but vaguely patriotic if you don't look too closely.

The last option, called "Great Wide Open," has a foreground of various stripes of green punctuated with darker green blobs of possibly spinach or trees. Or it could be alligators. (Do we have alligators in Iowa?)

Iowa license plates used to be simple and practical until 1997, when somebody decided they needed to be gussied up with pictures, advertising our state to drivers at home and abroad. Other states do this, too. But the more artistic they are, like Wyoming's scenic background with the foreground of a bronco rider, the harder the numbers are to read. (If you want to rob a bank and get away clean, do it in Wyoming.)

Iowa license plates used to bear the state slogan, "A Place to Grow," but no longer. Other state license plates contain their mottos. New Mexico has "The Land of Enchantment." Sounds nice, but aren't other states enchanting in their own way? Connecticut has, "The Constitution State." Delaware has "The First State." Alaska has "The Last Frontier." New Hampshire has "Live Free or Die." It's not clear if this is a vow or a command or some kind of existential dilemma. Washington D.C. has "Taxation Without Representation." (Shouldn't that be "No" taxation without representation? Well, at least it's honest.)

Sept. 5 will be the 40th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft that launched in 1977 to explore the planets in our solar system and beyond. It is currently 13 billion miles from Earth, having entered interstellar space. Voyager is carrying a golden video disk containing pictures and videos of life on our planet and music and maps showing our location among the stars as a hopeful greeting to any alien who might find it. The disk is a kind of intergalactic license plate.

I suppose it doesn't make a lot of difference what our license plate looks like. There is only so much information about us we can put on it. But it does remind us that it is not the license plate, but the people inside the car, that are the best advertising for our state as we voyage to strange, alien lands. You know, like New Jersey.
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