Some of my friends who are Democrats are asking Iowa party officials some very uncomfortable questions these days.
I applaud these people for standing up. Their questions go something like this:
Is the Iowa Democratic Party more concerned about keeping the Iowa caucuses first in the nation in the presidential nomination process, even if the caucus structure prevents countless Democrats from participating?
Or are party leaders as bothered as some rank-and-file Iowans that the caucus format makes it next to impossible for large numbers of people to have their votes counted in the first formal judging of the 20 men and women who are seeking the Democratic nomination?
The Iowa Democratic Party is hip deep in this bubbling controversy, because the party and party leaders enjoy the national spotlight that comes our way every four years.
That spotlight typically shines on candidates’ speeches and on which candidates have organized the best “ground game” to turn out their supporters in 99 counties and hundreds of precincts on a cold or snowy winter night.
The national media love the scenes of candidates meeting Iowans in small-town cafes and barber shops, in living rooms and around backyard grills. It’s can’t-miss footage when photographers get the candidates glad-handing, eating pork chops and admiring the cows and pigs at the State Fair.
But this media spotlight rarely mentions the fundamental problems that have existed from the beginning with the Democrats’ caucuses (and with Republicans’ caucuses to a lesser degree).
Participating in the Democrats’ caucuses requires a significant time commitment on caucus night. To officially make their candidate support known, Iowa Democrats must invest at least three hours. They need to be able to stand for that entire time, and in some precincts, especially in large cities, people are packed shoulder to shoulder.
One of my friends, a smart-as-a-whip guy in his early 80s, follows politics like other people follow the NFL. He vented recently, “The caucus, as it stands, is tantamount to disenfranchisement for my wife and me.”
Floyd and his wife did not participate in the 2016 presidential caucuses when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were competing because the weather that night was bitterly cold. Even if the weather is more moderate next Feb. 3, when the 2020 caucuses are held, Floyd said it is unlikely they will attend because, at their age, standing for long periods of time is too difficult.
It is difficult for parents with young children to attend because child care on a school night is not easy to find. It’s difficult for hourly workers to participate if their employers do not offer time off and if the person has to forego a day’s pay for missing work that day. It’s difficult for people in care centers or those who are sick to participate. It’s difficult for people who are out of town on business or in the military to participate.
The Iowa caucuses already are criticized nationally because our state is small and is not as ethnically or demographically diverse as many other states. When you factor in the segments of Iowa’s population that are under-represented in caucus participation, the state is even more out of sync with the nation’s overall population.
Floyd put it this way: “We may well be at the point where we must consider which is more important — losing the first-state status at the cost of disenfranchisement, or working to expand the people’s right to vote. Personally, for my wife and me, voting comes first.”
This is where things get messy, however.
For 40 years, Iowa has had the nation’s first caucus and New Hampshire has had the first primary election. There has been a gentlemen’s agreement between the two states that they would together fend off other states that try to encroach on Iowa and New Hampshire. The gentlemen’s agreement also says New Hampshire would not try to elbow past Iowa on the presidential nomination calendar as long as Iowa did not try to switch to a primary.
To get around criticism like Floyd’s, Iowa Democratic Party officials planned to have a “virtual caucus” in February that Iowans could participate in by telephone. But national party leaders shot that down last week because of concerns it would be too difficult to ensure the accuracy of the outcome in these times of cyber security intrusions.
Some in Iowa have suggested the Iowa Democratic Party should add absentee ballots to address the criticism by folks like Floyd. But adding absentee ballots to the caucuses probably would lead to a messy fight with New Hampshire.
Besides absentee ballots, another option being mentioned is having several days during which Iowans could express their choice for the Democratic nomination in person.
If the national Democratic Party has to step in to referee a fight between Iowa and New Hampshire over changes to the caucuses, don’t be surprised if the party brass decides another state with much greater population and more diversity ought to go first in 2024.
Another friend, Laura Belin, the author of the “Bleeding Heartland” political blog, wrote recently that “… thousands of politically engaged Iowans are highly informed about the issues and candidates but cannot caucus through no fault of their own. They just want to have a voice in the presidential nomination process.”
Yes, people like Floyd.
And party leaders should listen to him.
Randy Evans is a former longtime Des Moines Register journalist and the current executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.