Wait. I Have to Affiliate With a Political Party?
In the lead-up to Election Day 2023 and the 2024 Iowa precinct caucuses, I am helping to facilitate voter registration drives on Drake University’s campus. Having assisted dozens of Drake Bulldogs register to vote, I’ve noticed a general formula to the way in which college students approach the State of Iowa Official Voter Registration Form.
Allow me to paint a picture.
There tend to be two types of students that approach the voter registration table. The first kind confidently strides up to the table with a smile on their face, assuredly grabbing a pen and registration form. This student is eager, ambitious, and keen to engage with the Iowa political process.
The second is slightly more cautious. These students tend to shuffle over slowly, not making direct eye contact or feigning a casual interest in the table materials (and the candy I put out to incentivize voter registration). Oftentimes, the hesitant students are unsure of whether or not they want to register to vote – let alone in Iowa – or are daunted by the political process and do not know where to begin.
There is a third type of student that does not fall into either of these categories: the students that do not approach the table at all. There may be a few stragglers enticed by the pieces of candy scattered on the table and shouts of, “Hey! Are you registered to vote?” These students pull out their earbud,
Regardless of the type of student that approaches the table, I try to meet them with an equal amount of enthusiasm for civic engagement as I hand the registrant a registration form and jump into my spiel. I will say, I have fine-tuned the content of this little speech to cover all of the most frequently asked questions and points of friction. However, I will be the first to admit that it is a lot of information all at once, so I don’t blame the majority of students that tune me out after the first one or two bullet points… As such, it is no surprise that most students do not retain information related to political affiliation, especially as it relates to the 2024 Iowa precinct caucus cycle.
Upon the completion of my spiel, I sit back, ask if there are any questions – usually, “no” – and mention that I am available to assist if any questions arise. I watch from the periphery of my vision as students begin to fill out the form.
Starting from the top of the registration form and moving down, the majority of questions on the sheet are logistical. I have noticed brains tend to go on autopilot as registrants check off qualifications, document their personal identification information, and record their residential and mailing addresses. It is the little section right before the ‘Registrant Affidavit’ box with the line to sign and date that makes most people stop in their tracks: “Political Affiliation.”
When students reach this section, there is usually a pause, followed by some variation of:
Q: Do I have to register with a political party?
A: It depends.
Let me explain.
In general and open primary elections, secret ballots give voters the right to select any candidate they prefer, regardless of the letter next to their name. A registrant’s political affiliation is not tied to their vote, so selecting a party or non-party political organization is not necessary.
In the case of the caucuses, party affiliation is critical. Because caucuses are official party meetings and not state-run elections, only partisans are allowed to participate. In other words, a caucus goer must register with a political affiliation to participate in the corresponding party caucus. Importantly, caucus goers may participate in only one party's caucus each nomination cycle. With the introduction of this information, some students go ahead and check a box, but I also frequently encounter some rendition of:
Q: So, which party should I affiliate with?
A: It depends.
The answer again is that it depends! There are five distinct political affiliations to choose from: Democratic, Libertarian, Republican, No Party, and Green, which is a non-party political organization with which registrants may choose to affiliate. Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians will all hold caucus meetings on January 15, 2024. The format of caucus meetings for the respective parties differs, but participation is limited to party members only. Anyone may come to spectate, so non-registered voters or non-affiliated individuals may attend a precinct meeting to observe proceedings.
Deciding which party to affiliate with is a highly individual decision. Some individuals choose to research the candidates running for each party’s nomination and select a party based on the candidate. Others choose to select the party that aligns most closely with their values. Others still determine which party has the more competitive contest and register with the party in which they feel their vote will carry the most weight.
Put simply, it really depends. For purposes of caucusing, the main takeaway is that yes, you do have to register with a political party to participate in the caucus proceedings!