Candidates' attention, ease of voting boost Iowa turnout

Swing state status "helps to keep people engaged from the caucuses until Election Day"

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cleanliness, it’s said, is next to godliness.

It also can boost voter turnout.

“It’s not that we went out and got more people to vote,” says Lori Moellers, auditor in Fayette County trying to explain why the northeast Iowa County recorded the highest voter turnout in Iowa in the 2012 general election — 84.5 percent.

They key was that “our records are probably cleaner than other counties,” Moellers says. That’s not a knock on other counties, “but if your records are clean, it drives up your percentage.”

By removing the names of deceased voters and people who have moved out of the county there are fewer “inactive” voters who are likely to sit out an election and increases the percentage of “active” registered voters.

An inactive voter is someone who has not participated in two consecutive general elections and has not responded to mailings confirming they still live at that address, or the mail has been returned undeliverable.

Whatever the reason, Fayette County’s turnout is impressive even in Iowa where 2012 turnout 2012 was 70.2 percent — fifth highest in the nation. Iowa was one of two states that increased the percentage of eligible voters and the number of people who cast ballots in 2012, according to Bipartisan Policy Center 2012 Voter Turnout Report.

Despite an increase of 8 million potential voters and an estimated $6 billion in campaign spending, voter turnout nationally dipped from 62.3 percent in 2008 to 57.5 percent in 2012. That was below the 60.4 level of the 2004 election, but higher than the 54.2 percent turnout in the 2000 election.

Iowa’s consistently high level of voter participation can be traced to a variety of sources, according to Iowa political science professors. They generally agree the keys are high levels political competitiveness because of the non-partisan approach to drawing congressional and legislative districts, the ease of voting and a high level of political awareness because of hosting the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.

“It’s hard not to be aware,” Cary Covington of the University of Iowa said. “Awareness does contribute to higher turnout rates.”

Iowa has the sixth highest “ease of voting” ranking based allowing voters to register on Election Day, 40 days of early voting and no voter ID law, Covington noted.

Dianne Bystrom of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics noted that Iowa and New Hampshire, which host the nation’s first presidential primary, routinely rank among the top states in voter turnout.

The attention voters in Iowa and New Hampshire get during the caucus and primary phase as well as the general election campaign “increases the likelihood of their citizens to be politically informed and civically engaged in the political process,” she said.

The attention heightens Iowa voters’ political awareness, but Tim Hagle from UI said that by working to identify less reliable voters and get them to vote increases turnout.

“Some of those who vote early would do so anyway, but many are targeted by the campaigns to do so,” Hagle said.

He also believes the intense campaigns increase voter awareness among “no party” voters who have lower participation rates than Democrats and Republicans. The parties allow them to participate in the caucuses if they change their registration — even if only for a night.

“That swing state status means we have more candidate and surrogate visits and see more commercials and other campaign advertising than most other states,” Hagle said. “That helps to keep people engaged from the caucuses until Election Day.”

There may be more to Iowans’ high rate of voter participation than ease of voting and being showered with attention, according to Chris Larimer at the University of Northern Iowa. He cited the “classic political science” work of the late Daniel Elazar who classified Iowa as “moralistic, with individualistic strain.”

In states where those traits dominate, Elazar said government is viewed as a positive mechanism for producing policy and citizens are engaged with the actions of government.

“Moralistic” states have been shown to have higher participation rates than other states, particularly those with more “traditionalistic” cultures such as in the South and Southwest, Larimer said.

For ISU’s Steffen Schmidt, “small town civic engagement culture is THE biggest reason” for high voter turnout.

“Protestant ethic and Garrison Keillor-like ‘guilt culture’ coming out of Lutheranism plays a big role in this,” he added.


Voter Turnout

State 2012 Turnout 2008 Rank


76.10%  1
Wisconsin 73.20% 2
Colorado 71.10% 5
New Hampshire 70.90% 4
Iowa 70.20% 6
Maine 69.20%


Virginia 66.90%


Maryland 66.80% 10
Massachusetts 66.60% 20
Michigan 65.30% 8

Source: U.S. Elections Project


For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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