Same-day voter registration for Iowa caucuses remains – for now

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Posted at 9:46 PM, Sep 15, 2023
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The ability of many Iowa voters to participate in the state’s influential 2024 presidential nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, may come down to a matter of timing.

Iowa political parties now have the power to set new voter registration requirements for caucus participation. However, Iowa Republicans are unlikely to make changes before the 2024 caucus — in large part because they don’t have time.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation in June largely focused on preventing Iowa Democrats from moving forward with a plan to make caucus participation more accessible by creating a mail-in system. The bill also included a provision allowing state parties to set party registration requirements for the caucuses.

The legislation – originally requiring caucusgoers to register with a party at least 70 days before caucus night – was brought forward by Republican state lawmakers who expressed concerns about Democrats participating in the GOP caucuses using same-day registration in order to influence the outcome.

Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann said last week it is unlikely the state party will be able to make an amendment to the party constitution removing same-day registration in time for the Jan. 15, 2024 caucuses.

“It is very, very clear in our RPI constitution that same-day registration is something that we shall allow,” Kaufmann said.

Typically, constitutional amendments for the party are made during the Iowa GOP state convention. The next one is scheduled for May 2024, after the caucuses.

The state party could convene for a special convention, but it would require advance notice to hold, in addition to other requirements outlined in the party constitution such as having 40 members of the Republican State Council request the amendment and having the proposal mailed to convention delegates two weeks before the event. As the Republican National Committee requires state parties to submit their plans for the 2024 nominating contests by Oct. 1, Iowa Republicans would have a razor-thin window to make the change.

Iowa Republicans have allowed same-day voter registration since 1992. While the change is not likely coming this year, Republicans expect to discuss same-day voter registration at the next convention.

Kaufmann said Republicans are still looking for other ways to stop “disaffected Republicans and Democrats from flooding our caucuses and giving us results that aren’t indicative of a Republican caucus.”

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In previous caucus cycles, many Iowans have used same-day voter registration to participate in the Iowa caucuses. In 2016, nearly 12,000 people who were previously not registered to vote signed up to participate in the Iowa caucuses in February according to Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. Additionally, more than 47,000 independent voters changed their party affiliations during the same period – 29,000 as Democrats and 21,000 as Republicans.

In the same time period, more than 5,700 Democrats switched their party affiliation to Republican, and 5,000 Republicans switched to Democrat.

Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said while there likely have been individuals who changed party registration to caucus for a candidate who they think would be more likely to lose in a general election, or who they see as more moderate choice, there has not been widespread concern about non-party members influencing caucus results. In part, that concern was not an issue because both parties have traditionally caucused on the same day, he said.

That may no longer be the case. Though Iowa Democrats have not yet officially set a date for their 2024 caucus, party leaders have said they plan to pursue a mail-in presidential preference card system. While Democrats will still hold an in-person event, action on presidential nominations will not occur on caucus night. This could potentially mean people looking to cause “mischief” could attempt to participate in the Democratic caucus by mail and the Republican caucus in person in 2024, Hagle said.

While the new caucus law stipulates that an individual can only participate in one party caucus, Hagle said it may be difficult or labor-intensive to catch someone who caucuses for both Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

“Even aside from the possibility that somebody might try to participate in both, I don’t think that’s the bigger concern,” Hagle said. “The bigger concern might be is that with Democrats, (who) not really sure even at this point what they’re going to do, you may have Democrats that say, ‘Well, I don’t need to vote in the Democratic caucus, anyway, so now I’ll vote in the Republican one.'”

There is some speculation that another Democrat may yet join the race, but President Joe Biden is currently expected to win the party nomination as an incumbent in 2024. The incumbent candidate, combined with many Democrats’ strong feelings on former President Donald Trump, could lead to some to participate in the GOP caucuses.

Hagle said some Democrats may choose to caucus for Trump in the Republican caucuses because they believe he would be a weaker candidate against Biden after losing to him in the 2020 election.

“Trump has huge name recognition, so he would seem to be a strong candidate, which is one of the reasons why he seems to be leading in most of the polls, as far as Republican side is concerned,” Hagle said. “But also you’ve got somebody who generates a huge amount of negative attention from the Democrats. … plus, of course, now we’ve got all the indictments and legal things that Trump has to face. Democrats generally see that as weakness that they can perhaps exploit in the general election.”

However, Hagle said trying to address this issue by removing same-day voter registration could keep many Iowans from caucusing who sincerely want to participate. Many no-party voters switch their party affiliations close to or on caucus night, he said, and a change could keep independents from being a part of the process.

Iowa Democrats’ system may also have negative impacts on independent voter participation, Hagle said. With a mail-in system, Iowans would not be able to register and participate on caucus night itself.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee will vote Saturday on an in-person caucus date, in addition to promising more details on their new plan to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee in October.

“Regardless of what happens, Iowa Democrats have to figure out some methods some process for getting the ballots out to the people that want to participate,” Hagle said. “And the big question there is, how do they reach no-party voters that might want to participate as well? Again, with an incumbent, you probably wouldn’t have very high turnout anyway, but there needs to be something along those lines. Otherwise, they lose that tremendous opportunity to increase their numbers.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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