The Iowa primary elections are just around the corner, and while the presidential contest isn’t until 2024, this year is still a crucial election for state and federal offices that directly impact your daily life.
Primary elections are important because they decide who will be on the ballot in the November general election for each political party. The purpose is for the parties to narrow down the number of candidates voters will eventually have to choose from.
For example, in the high-profile US Senate race, longtime Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley faces a primary challenger from his right in Jim Carlin, while three Democrats—Abby Finkenauer, Mike Franken and Glenn Hurst—compete to be the nominee that hopes to flip the Senate seat blue.
Meanwhile at the state government level, there are multiple Iowa House districts where six candidates are facing off for their party’s nomination. For some of these seats that are heavily-Democratic or heavily-Republican, the primary election can basically determine who the next legislator is.
Adam Wedmore, the Cerro Gordo County Auditor, said it’s very common for people to be less familiar with primary elections.
“It’s highly important that we have a primary election. If we didn’t have the primary election, we would have an untold number of candidates on the general election ballot, which would be even more confusing to the voter,” he said.
Mary Stewart, secretary of the Wapello County Democratic Central Committee, said primaries are also important times for voters’ voices to be heard.
“I think voters should understand that their voices are heard through voting, not always through social media, but definitely through voting,” she said. “And they need to take full advantage of the opportunity because when they don’t vote, they silence themselves.”
The primary process is when voters learn the different ideas and positions being floated in their parties, she said. Each candidate has a particular message and primaries allow people to endorse the message that aligns with their views.
If you have problems with how a political party is run or represents itself, the primary is the best way to pick candidates that could change a party’s direction.
“Ultimately it’s very exciting when you realize that it determines politics in Iowa and your future in particular, just in terms of the way you would like to see government operate and function,” Stewart said.
But even though the primaries are done for the political parties, they’re run by local governments so all of the voting rules are the same. The only difference is that a voter must choose their party when they show up at their voting location—something that isn’t a permanent choice.
“It’s because they are choosing the candidates for that party to move on to the general election,” Wedmore said. “They will get their opportunity in November and the general election to then vote for any candidate, regardless of party.”
The voting will likely also be held in the same place as the general election. Voters can find information about their polling location here. You can also vote ahead of the June 7 election day by going to your county auditor’s office and voting early in-person.
Because Iowa has same-day registration for voting, Wedmore pointed out that voters can declare or change their party affiliation when they go to the polls so anyone should be able to vote in the primaries. That’s important because turnout for primary elections is historically low, especially in years without a presidential nominee.
In Cerro Gordo County, Wedmore said the average turnout for primaries is about 9%. For general elections, the average is closer to 70%.
“By far, our largest primary turnouts in many, many years was in 2020,” he said.
Then, the turnout for the primary was at 20.18% and Wedmore chalked it up to the Secretary of State’s office and political parties sending absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter because COVID made it risky to visit polling locations in person.
“That really, really spurred interest in absentee voting,” Wedmore said. “And it’s purely because of that our turnout was so high.”
Since 2020, Republicans have changed election laws and that practice is no longer allowed. Now, voters have to request absentee ballots. For the primaries this year, they have until May 23 and voters can do that here.
Stewart said the Wapello County Democrats are holding voter registration events, informing people about changes to Iowa’s voting laws, offering rides to the polls and ultimately trying to create an awareness of the primary elections and why they’re important.
“We are trying to do everything we can to make sure that people recognize it’s not just an exercise and it’s not just a task that needs to be completed,” Stewart said. “It’s their voice in government. They need to use it and they need to understand the power that it can carry. So we hope for stronger turnout.”
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