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Iowa's senior voters, driving early voting, hold sway in election
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Iowa's senior voters, driving early voting, hold sway in election

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The generation that led change on college campuses, in social life, the workplace and definitely in politics is poised to make its presence felt again at the ballot box.

That’s because the “radicals” and “revolutionaries” of the 1960s and 1970s have aged into the demographic cohort with the heaviest turnout on Election Day.

“One of the things I learned way back in about the Carter era was, just a rule of thumb, that 20 percent of 20-year-olds, 30 percent of 30-year-olds and so on until you get to 80 percent of 80-year-olds vote,” said Ro Foege of Cedar Rapids, a Democrat who formerly represented the Mount Vernon area in the Iowa House.

In the 2016 general election, 80 percent of Iowa registered voters age 50 to 64 and 83 percent of those age 65 and older cast ballots. Only 9 percent of voters age 18 to 24 participated in the election, according to the Iowa Secretary of State. Overall, Iowans 50 and older accounted for 55 percent of the vote.

Based on voter registration and absentee ballot request numbers he’s seeing from older voters. AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson wrote a memo about the 2020 election headlined, “It’s all about 65+ voters.”

Exit polls four years ago found that Donald Trump won 65-plus voters by 4 percentage points. A September poll conducted for AARP Iowa showed Trump leading former Vice President Joe Biden among voters ages 50-64 by 22 points — 59 percent to 37 percent. However, the president trailed Biden 38 to 55 percent among 65-plus voters.

“If this is a change election, the change will be brought by 65-plus voters,” Anderson said. If it’s a status quo election, those voters will “return home.”

Either way, Anderson said, the outcome of the presidential race “is likely in the hands of 65-plus voters in battleground states.”

In that case, he said, candidates need to pay attention to the large number of older voters and their concerns.

There are three, according to Tony Vola, 73, Republican and former president of the AARP Iowa board.

“Don’t mess with my Social Security, don’t mess up Medicare and support policies that help me stay in my home as long as I can,” said Vola, who returned to Iowa and started an in-home care business after a military career.

“If 1992 was ‘It’s the economy, stupid, this election is ‘It’s the virus, but don’t forget about Social Security,’ ” Anderson said.

COVID-19 is driving the increased number of absentee ballot requests across all age groups. However, nearly 70 percent of the more than 630,000 absentee ballot requests have come from voters 50 and older.

That’s no surprise to Foege, 82, a member of AARP Iowa’s executive board. Based on his observations, younger people seem “pretty nonchalant” about COVID-19, “but to those of us over 65, COVID-19 is a lot scarier.”

The combination of the virus and concerns of people in his age group who depend on Social Security makes Foege think Anderson’s assessment is right that “my age group could be the one that tips the scales.”

Vola, who said he hasn’t missed an election since reaching voting age, isn’t sure whether older voters “are establishing the change or pushing the change.”

“I still think older voters are fairly quiet, when it comes to how they approach things,” he said. “They’re not loud and boisterous and out in the street and that sort of stuff. They just do what they need to do.”

This year, he and Foege agree, they need and want to vote, and COVID-19 is driving them to absentee voting.

“I think there’s still a lot of people, whatever age, who would really like to go to the polls and vote at the machine in their neighborhood poll polling place,” Foege said. “But I think the older you are, the more of a threat it is to you. All of the statistics show that we’re more vulnerable than younger people.”

Vola agrees, but plans to vote in person.

“Seniors want to vote and they’re going to find the safest way,” Vola said. “Some are concerned about showing up. So they’re going to go absentees. People like me aren’t afraid to walk in the door. So I’m going to walk in the door.”

Iowa voters can continue to request absentee ballots until Oct. 24 and early in-person voting continues until Nov. 2. Election Day is Nov. 3.

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