Guest Columnist

With Iowa in the spotlight, older voters take center stage

We need to ensure that everyone feels safe casting their vote during the COVID-19 pandemic

A poll worker sanitizes the sit-down voting booth table at the Hiawatha Community Center in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Tuesday,
A poll worker sanitizes the sit-down voting booth table at the Hiawatha Community Center in Hiawatha, Iowa, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Voting booths as well as other commonly touched surfaces are sanitized after every use. Poll workers arrive early to setup the polling booths, voting machine, and other all space in preparation for voting in the primary election. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Among the buzz of the upcoming presidential election, Iowa has still managed to be a center of attention. In addition to kicking off election season earlier this year, we also have a closely contested Senate election taking shape, which could drastically alter the political picture on Capitol Hill for years to come.

Mixed in with all the usual election-year excitement, though, are the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As with all other facets of our day-to-day lives, this has forced us to re-imagine how we will approach Election Day.

So far, a lot of attention has been paid to absentee balloting and voting by mail. However, if we are truly going to have a safe and successful election in Iowa this November, we also need to recognize the importance of providing viable, socially distanced in-person voting options. Otherwise, many voters across the state could still be forced to consider staying home without ever casting a ballot.

This holds especially true for older Iowans. Health experts continue to warn that COVID-19 poses a greater risk to older Americans, meaning many may naturally be concerned about voting in-person. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that they have the option to do so safely, given that Americans 50 and older look to play a considerable role in Iowa’s election. A recently released bipartisan poll by AARP shows that Iowa still is up for grabs, with just four percentage points separating Sen. Joni Ernst from her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.

Iowa isn’t alone, either. Several key swing states in the Midwest and throughout the rest of the nation are playing host to tight Senate races and close presidential polling. Given that older Americans routinely place at the top when it comes to voter turnout, their voices could change the course of this election, and the immediate future of American politics as a result.

With so much on the line, we need to ensure that everyone feels safe casting their vote. However, serious efforts will need to be made to encourage voters of all ages to participate as poll workers. For several elections, most poll workers have been over the age of 60, while poll workers have simultaneously been more difficult to recruit. Now, with older Americans growing increasingly concerned over the risks associated with COVID-19, those struggles could continue unless there is a more intergenerational makeup of poll workers.

We have already had a test case of what can go wrong if there are not enough people staffing polling places during the pandemic. In the Wisconsin primary earlier this year, local officials struggled with finding enough people to help at the polls. The result? Incredibly limited in-person voting options in the state’s largest city, creating large lines in the process. As long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we cannot allow the same to happen here in Iowa.

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Thankfully, many organizations both in Iowa and across the rest of the country are working hard to ensure that does not happen. Groups like Power the Polls and the Association of Young Americans are working together to raise awareness of the importance of having Americans of all ages assist polling places on November 3rd. By helping these efforts to succeed in our home state, we can do our part to allow everyone to safely vote however they feel comfortable doing so.

In Iowa, we are used to being in the political spotlight. This year, that light is shining brighter than it has in some time, and we need to ensure that all voters are able to make their voices heard. For that to be possible, we need a robust group of poll workers to enable people to safely cast in-person ballots on Election Day.

Sally Stutsman is a former Johnson County Supervisor and former Democratic member of the Iowa House of Representative, representing District 77 from 2013 to 2017.

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