Column: 2020 political lows outnumber highs

Voter turnout in pandemic one of the highest highs

Emerson Dignan, a University of Iowa senior and first-time elections volunteer, sanitizes voting booths between voters N
Emerson Dignan, a University of Iowa senior and first-time elections volunteer, sanitizes voting booths between voters Nov. 3 at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — That was quite a century we had this year, wasn’t it?

Now that we’re about to jump off the roller coaster that was 2020, let’s take one last look back. And then we promise to never discuss it again. Deal?

As with any roller coaster, the year in politics 2020 featured plenty of highs and lows. Let’s be honest, though — there were probably many more lows than highs. But it’s the holidays and we all need more reasons to be happy, so let’s at least strive for some balance here.

In that spirit, let’s start on a high note and talk about voter turnout. Despite the pandemic, Iowans and Americans turned out for the elections in huge numbers.

In Iowa, 76 percent of active registered voters cast a ballot, a record high for the state and among the best rates in the country. Nearly 1.7 million Iowans voted in November’s general election, easily clearing the previous high-water mark of roughly 1.6 million in 2012.

That is irrefutably outstanding news. Generally speaking, the more people who participate in our elections, the better our representative government should operate.

Of course that high turnout was aided by a huge increase in the number of early votes. Iowa set a record on that front as well, with more than 1 million absentee ballots cast. This obviously helped immensely during the pandemic, when many voters were hesitant to vote in-person while COVID-19 was spreading through the state and country.

Which, sadly, leads us to one of the lows: the undermining of faith in our elections process.

The unfortunate campaign to sow doubt in our elections was spearheaded by Republican President Donald Trump after he lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Joe Biden. Trump has spent the past two months firing off all manner of allegations without evidence, and his legal team has done the same. Of course, those legal challenges have been remarkably unsuccessful, earning one minor victory that had no bearing on the outcome while dozens upon dozens of the lawsuits have been defeated, withdrawn or thrown out before even receiving a hearing.


It has been a disheartening two months for anyone who values free and fair elections, the most critical and basic function in our representative government.

As we already knew, and these quixotic legal challenges have proved once again, widespread voter fraud does not exist. But that has not stopped Trump from attempting to call the entire system into question just because he lost.

This is not a victimless crime. A significant portion of the American people do not believe the country held free and fair elections in November. We won’t know the full impact of that for years.

Speaking of things that were politicized in 2020 — but shouldn’t have been — another decided low was the politicization of public health recommendations, particularly the use of face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Here was a simple tool, a ridiculously easy step to take, that public health and infectious disease experts said with remarkable unison would literally save lives. And somehow, wearing face masks became a political debate in 2020.

That is depressing.

In fact, it’s too depressing to dwell on, so let’s move on quickly and finish on a high note: the service of election workers in Iowa across the country.

For the reasons already stated here, this year’s elections — the June primary and November general — were held under historically trying conditions. There was a pandemic raging with a deadly virus that spreads through human contact and interaction. And there was a swelling assault on the elections process, shining an unfortunately agitated light on election workers.

And yet they still came out. In fact, many election workers this year were first-timers who stepped up because they knew that traditionally election workers skew older, and those people are more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.


In the face of a deadly pandemic and increasing voter unrest, Iowans and Americans volunteered to help ensure our elections ran smoothly. And for the most part, they did — as they always do.

That is something inspiring that we can take away from this roller coaster of a year: That even in the most trying moments, there are still many Iowans and Americans who will answer the most important calls to duty.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to a 2021 that finds inspiration in and builds off those types of moments.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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