DES MOINES — Iowa Democrats are worried that a small change in the state’s voting law might have serious implications up and down the ballot this fall.
For the first time, Iowa voters will be denied the opportunity to vote a straight-party ticket — the time-honored practice which enables voters to choose a party’s entire slate of candidates with a single mark. Until the legislature outlawed the practice in 2017, voters could simply fill in just one oval to back every single party candidate on the ballot.
Now, with grassroots enthusiasm surging and a higher-than-usual turnout expected in November, Democrats are increasingly nervous that the change will end up tamping down their vote totals in a year that shows signs of being a wave election for the party.
“Republicans approved this legislation because they knew they had to face a midterm with an unpopular president,” David Yepsen, an Iowa political analyst and longtime former political reporter for the Des Moines Register. “Much of the Democratic strategy is aimed at first-time voters, especially millennials. There’s going to be a lot of first time, anti-Trump voters who will show up and they could be confused in the polling booth.”
Straight-ticket voting is how one out of every three Iowa voters have cast ballots in the past, so the elimination of the practice is of no small concern. With less than three weeks left before the election, Democrats are working to educate their voters to fill out all the ovals — and of the dangers of skipping down-ballot races.
There’s already signs of confusion, said Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, who described long lines forming at the polls when voters are presented with a two-paged ballot with more than a dozen races on the front page.
“The thing we’re seeing is the anxiety, we’re seeing it every day,” Fitzgerald said. “When you come in to vote you have a large ballot …The long line of people in our office, they seem anxious. I think it’s just a lot of people were party loyalists on both sides who were used to just filling in one circle.”
The most likely effect is a drop-off in votes in down-ballot races, where candidates are typically lesser known. In the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary this year, for example, 182,000 people voted. But more than 21,000 people cast no vote in the secretary of state contest.
Those non-votes could have made a big difference — the victor in that primary, Deidre DeJear, defeated her opponent by fewer than 5,000 votes.
It’s not certain that the elimination of straight-ticket voting will hurt Democratic candidates. There’s also plenty of reason for Republicans to worry about a ballot-wide thumping. Democratic-oriented outside groups, like NextGen Iowa, have since March visited 41 college campuses registering young voters. The group, funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, this week reached a landmark, registering from the field 11,500 new voters.
NextGen Iowa state director Haley Hager said the group’s campus outreach has included educating students on changes to the state’s voting laws — and about the need to fill out the entire ballot.
In addition to ending straight-ticket voting in 2017, Republicans pushed through a package that asks voters to present an ID to vote and shortens the early voting period from 40 days to 30 days. The ID component doesn’t begin until January, but it’s caused some confusion with voters, including college students from out of state who think they can’t vote because they don’t have an Iowa ID.
“We have been having conversations with students thinking they can’t vote,” Hager said. “This is an attempt by Republicans to make it more confusing and intimidating.”
Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate, who is up for reelection this November, had backed the voter ID law, saying it is a way to protect voter integrity. But a Pate spokesman said it was the legislature that moved to eliminate straight-ticket voting and shorten the early voting period.
Iowa Republicans noted the dwindling number of states that still allow straight-party voting, arguing it’s good policy that takes partisanship off the ballot — and not an attempt to thwart Democrats.
“These provocations made by liberal groups are frankly insulting to the voters of Iowa,” said Iowa GOP spokesman Jesse Dougherty. “The elimination of straight-ticket voting was a long-held idea, done early last year before any Democrats ever made a peep about ‘a blue wave.’”
Taken together, Democrats believe the voting laws were designed explicitly to hurt their constituencies, and to prevent a possible wave election from sweeping Democrats into lower level races. Today, Republicans dominate both legislative chambers, the governor’s office and hold three out of the state’s four congressional districts.
Democrats need to gain ground if they want to emerge from the midterms and head toward 2020 from a position of strength after suffering devastating losses across the board when Donald Trump won the state in 2016.
One 2020 contender, Maryland Congressman John Delaney, says Iowa Democrats can do that best from the bottom up. This week, Delaney’s presidential campaign announced it would pay to send six field workers to five Iowa counties who will focus on electing down-ballot candidates.
“I think it helps a lot in 2020 when I’m planning on having it flip from red to blue,” Delaney said of the presidential map. “The stronger the footprint Democrats have in Iowa, the better chance that will happen.”
Another Democrat put it even more simply.
“We need to start winning,” former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge said. “We’ll be stronger going into 2020 and it will fire people up. People are fired up now like I haven’t seen since Obama ran. But we could have some of the wind taken out of our sails if we don’t do well in November.”
Some Democrats predicted unintended consequences for Republicans, who in 2014 were slightly more likely than Democrats to vote straight ticket.
But a top Iowa-based Republican strategist, who acknowledged the elimination of straight-ticket voting would most likely adversely affect local races, said it was too early to say if it could help one party over the other.
“I just don’t think we know what kind of impact it really has. Anything anybody says about it now is speculating, they’re not operating on experience,” David Kochel said. “Run a good campaign, that’s the best way to inoculate yourself against voting behavior from previous years.”