In Iowa: Marching for many reasons but one message: vote

Increasing voter participation is a message worth supporting

March leaders listen to newly elected Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speak Jan. 20 at the Women’s March on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City. (Mary Mathis/freelance)
March leaders listen to newly elected Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speak Jan. 20 at the Women’s March on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City. (Mary Mathis/freelance)

After I covered the second Women’s March in Iowa City last weekend for The Gazette, I returned to the office to a voicemail from a reader questioning what the women, men and children at the march had been protesting.

The answer to that is long and varied — people carried signs advocating for everything from protecting the Earth to equal pay for women.

But the most frequent signs I saw promoted one thing: voting. “Hear my vote!” declared signs peppered throughout the crowd Jan. 20 on the Pedestrian Mall.

The national Women’s March organizers’ message this year was “Power to the Polls,” with promises from women around the country that the energy that sent them into the streets would propel them to the ballot box. The national march Jan. 21 in Las Vegas was designed to draw attention to a voter registration campaign in swing states before the 2018 midterm elections.

Whatever your feelings about the Women’s March, or about those currently in political office or those running to oppose them, increasing voter participation is a message worth supporting in its own right.

On Jan. 15, I was covering a different march and event, a celebration marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Iowa City. After a “Color of Unity” march through the bitter cold in honor of King’s memory and message, community members gathered at Grant Wood Elementary School in Iowa City for service projects, music, poetry and other programming. One of the groups there, the League of Women Voters, was busy registering voters, with members working the crowd to encourage participation.

“If you don’t vote, you’re letting other people make the decisions for you,” said Johnson County League President Sydney Conger.


She said the nonprofit and its volunteers are working hard on plans for voter education, especially with a new voter ID law being rolled out this year and next.

In 2018, Iowa voters for the first time will be asked to show their identification before voting. Identifications that will be accepted include Iowa driver’s licenses or non-operator IDs, passports, military ID, veterans ID or specially issued voter ID cards for those without other forms of accepted identification. The voter ID cards are supposed to be mailed automatically when someone without another form of ID registers to vote. In 2018, anyone who does not have the necessary ID at the polls will be asked to sign an oath verifying identity before being allowed to cast a regular ballot.

In 2019, Iowa voters without the necessary ID will have to cast a provisional ballot and then will need to provide identification before the county canvass of votes, the Monday after Election Day for primary and general elections.

Passing a voter ID law has been controversial, both in Iowa and in states across the country. Some groups say the laws will prevent fraud, others argue they will disenfranchise eligible voters. Whether you agree with the law or not, however, education will be vital to make sure voters are prepared for something they haven’t had to do before.

The League of Women Voters is working on pocket-size pamphlets to hand out as a reminder for voters of what they need to bring to the polls, Conger said.

“We’re in full education mode,” she said.

That education will be important for more than just national elections. Here in Linn County, one of the biggest issues on the public’s mind these days seems to be a controversial facilities plan to close or rebuild elementary schools throughout Cedar Rapids. Yet in the last school board election, just 7.81 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In the recent Cedar Rapids mayoral election, turnout was around 20 percent for both rounds of voting.

Those numbers should be higher. National elections, for the presidency and for Congress, are naturally higher profile, and it makes sense they draw higher numbers.

But local elections can have more immediate and direct impact on residents’ daily lives, from which roads get paved to where our children go to school to how flood mitigation plans are enacted and beyond.

The people we elect are directly responsible to us, the voters. But only if we show up.

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