The Iowa caucus happened last week and for all intents and purposes, it was a disaster. In past elections, results have been calculated and released by about 9 p.m. CST. This year, it took days for the official caucus results to be announced by the Iowa Democratic Party. This delay was caused partially by new infrastructure being used to relay results from precinct captains to party higher-ups, and partially by the fact that, for the first time, the party was releasing not only the delegate numbers, but an official popular vote as well. The situation was very messy and, as Luther Abel pointed out in last week’s The Lawrentian, a very bad look for the Democratic Party. The specific problems this year were not in the caucus itself: they were in every unfortunate mishap surrounding the caucus. However, this does not mean that there are not major problems with the process of caucusing itself. Caucuses are complicated, ableist, classist and generally dumb. While the problems in Iowa last week signify the death of the caucus for many reasons, we cannot ignore the systemic issues that lie in the very structure of a caucus itself.
So how does a caucus work? In order to nominate a presidential candidate, a party must assign delegates to vote for a given candidate at their party’s convention. These delegates are assigned based loosely on the proportional support each candidate receives in a given state. The process is much more complicated than that, but that is the gist. Most states hold primaries where, like in any other election, citizens vote for the candidate they like best, and delegates are assigned based on the results of that election.
Caucuses are different. Instead of relying on an anonymous paper ballot, they involve the physical assembly of people in support of their preferred candidate. Various rounds of voting take place wherein candidates with less support are declared “not viable,” are booted out, and their supporters are forced to find a new candidate to support. These subsequent rounds involve supporters of viable candidates lobbying the newly candidate-less to join their squad. In the end, the number of people still standing for each viable candidate are tallied and sent to the state party to be translated into “state delegate equivalents,” which then decide which party delegates will be representing which candidates at the Democratic National Convention. To put it very crudely, a caucus is a glorified game of Red Rover.
This heavily involved process has many barriers to entry and prevents a great number of citizens from being able to participate in the democratic process. Caucusing takes about three hours from start to finish and is held in the evening, when many people are still working, taking care of children or busy with other obligations. Those who are sick, elderly or disabled cannot attend a caucus for many reasons. The three-hour commitment may be too much of a strain on their body, they may be home or hospital-bound or the venue for their caucus may just not be accessible. Working people, disabled people, caretakers and others with barriers to entry are basically unable to vote due to the location, timing and nature of a caucus.
Open primaries, meanwhile, allow an entire day to get to the polls, citizens can be given physical or mental assistance while voting and anyone is allowed to mail in an absentee ballot or vote early in the weeks leading up to an election. States with open primaries, like Minnesota, see a consistent 50 to 75% voter turnout, while caucuses see approximately 15% voter turnout. That difference is staggering. More people should be concerned that this sliver of the populace is deciding not only the delegate support for their state going into a party convention, but also that, in the case of Iowa, such a small number of people influence how the entire nation thinks about a race that still has 49 states left to hold elections. Why are we letting a bunch of middle class Iowans with access to babysitters, stable health and free time be the only ones to decide who their entire state endorses and supports going into 2020? When you think about it like that, it is ridiculous!
Caucuses are a cute tradition, a nice way to get involved in civil discussions with your fellow citizens and see the democratic process in action. They are also extremely exclusionary, overly complicated and a way for very few people to make a very big decision. I hope that the fiasco in Iowa makes state parties think twice about holding caucuses, but I would also encourage them to consider how caucuses disenfranchise Americans whose right it is to have their vote counted.