DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — For nearly as long as Iowa has held the first-in-the-nation test of voters’ support for presidential candidates, its party caucuses have been the target of critics from across the country who say the state is too white, too small and too old to be entitled to make such an important decision.
Before dropping out of the Democratic presidential contest, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro criticized the current nominating process in which Iowa and New Hampshire have first and second cracks at winnowing the field of candidates ahead of states with larger and more diverse populations.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” he said at a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in November. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”
It is a common refrain from critics every four years, from the campaigns, from other states, from the national news media. In addition to the state’s lack of diversity, critics deride Iowa’s precinct caucuses as inaccessible to voters who can’t get out on a winter night to attend the events that might last several hours to hash out party business.
A caucus is the antithesis of a primary, where voters can drop in for a few minutes to cast ballots throughout an entire day. Caucuses are also party events run not by the state but by Democratic and Republican Party officials and a small army of volunteers.
There is little Iowa can do about its relatively small population (3.1 million, or 31st in the nation), its racial mix (90% white; 3.4% black), its aging population (17% over the age of 65, and 2.4% over the age of 85), or the fact that Iowa’s population is evenly distributed across 944 incorporated towns and nine metropolitan areas, all under 500,000 population each.
Iowa Democratic Party leaders have, however, made changes this year in an effort to make the caucuses more accessible and the process more transparent.
“The Iowa Democratic Party has made historic changes for the 2020 caucuses to bring more voices into our party,” Mandy McClue, director of communications for the party, said in an email.
She continued, “We’ve made it easier for Iowans to request accommodations, get in the room faster, and caucus at a site that’s more convenient to them. We’ve also hired an accessibility outreach director to help make sure Iowans have the resources they need to caucus. Expanding participation has been at the heart of all of these changes, and we will continue to work to look for ways to increase accessibility on caucus night.”
One of the biggest changes is the addition of 99 “satellite” caucus sites – in addition to the regular 1,678 precinct sites – in response to criticism that the precinct caucus sites are inaccessible to Democratic voters who are unable to get to their regular caucus site due to health limitations, work conflicts or family obligations.
The satellite caucuses will be held in 97 sites. Sixty-nine are in Iowa, and additional sites are in 13 other states and three are abroad – including one in Paris, France. Satellite caucuses will be held in workplaces, assisted-living centers, union halls, community centers and on college campuses.
“From Paris to Palm Springs, Iowa Democrats will be caucusing on February 3, 2020,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said in a statement when the satellite caucus sites were announced.
The satellite caucuses are, in part, a response to the national Democratic Party urging Iowa to make its caucus process more accessible to voters who can’t make it to their precinct caucus. The state initially proposed “virtual caucuses,” in an effort to create the equivalent of absentee ballots where voters could sign up for a unique PIN online and phone in their presidential preference. But the national party rejected that plan, fearing it would be vulnerable to hackers.
In addition to satellite caucuses, the state Democratic Party has increased its efforts to make regular caucus sites accessible to the handicapped, and it is encouraging those with special needs to contact the party if they will need assistance. Also, to save time, for the first time this year the party set up an online check-in option for voters who wish to sign up for their precinct caucus before caucus night.
Finally, in an effort to bring more transparency to the caucus process, the Iowa Democrats this year will report two raw numbers of candidate support.
The first number will be based on participants dividing up into groups based on which Democratic presidential candidate they prefer. If a candidate does not have at least 15% of the total number of participants in that caucus, those participants must join another candidate’s group until they reach at least 15%, or “viability.”
Both the first and second numbers will be reported, along with the number of “delegate equivalents” viable candidates will be taking to the state convention. Also, this year for the first time, participants will sign a card with their preferred candidate on the front and their second choice on the back if necessary. These cards will be turned into the Iowa Democratic Party in the event a recount is needed.
Whatever their political differences, Republican and Democratic leaders are on the same page when it comes to defending the state’s caucuses. Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann and the Iowa Democratic Party’s Price have formed an unusual bipartisan effort to make the case this year for Iowa remaining in first place, making public appearances around the state, on TV news shows, and even jointly penning a newspaper op-ed.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Kaufmann called the charge that Iowa is too white to be first in line “absolutely ludicrous,” and he cites as Exhibit A the 2016 Republican caucuses when Cuban-American Ted Cruz finished first, Cuban-American Marco Rubio finished third and African-American Ben Carson finished fourth.
What’s more, he said, “Iowa essentially made Barack Obama.”
Iowa could respond to critics of its process by simply scrapping the caucus process and holding a primary, like most states do. But it would lose its first-in-the-nation position because of an agreement with New Hampshire that assures the Granite State will have the first primary. Thus, Iowa’s choice would be to hold a primary sometime later in the year, or keep its quirky caucus system to preserve its spot first in line.
Choosing the latter will assure one thing: Criticism of Iowa’s caucuses will be heard again in four years.