Hope for change in 2020 Iowa caucuses, but…

The 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses could become more [small-d] democratic, if changes proposed by the state party are approved—and if they work—which is a big if. Overall, it’s a hopeful sign, for at long last, someone is trying to do something about the crazy system Democrats use for choosing their presidential nominee.

As is well known, the Iowa caucuses are among the [unfortunate] critical first contests in the nomination process. The Democratic caucuses in 2016 were a huge political mess for the party: At the end of the night, the party awarded a razor-thin victory to Hillary Clinton, enraging supporters of Bernie Sanders, who cried foul. [Republicans had a similar—perhaps even worse—fiasco in 2012, when the Iowa party declared Mitt Romney the winner of its straw poll [not a caucus]—but later—after Romney had seized the momentum generated by the first win—figured out that Rick Santorum had actually won.]

In the wake of those problems, the Democratic National Committee recently issued new guidelines for caucuses. The goals include two key points aimed at boosting turnout:

  • Same-day registration—allowing caucus-day registration to any voter willing to join the party
  • Remote participation—eliminating the requirement of actually being in one of Iowa’s 1,679 caucus locations.

But the DNC doesn’t specify how to accomplish these goals, leaving the nitty gritty to state parties.

According to Steven Rosenfeld at Common Dreams, the changes under consideration would be…

“…the most sweeping and radical changes to [Iowa’s] first-in-the-nation caucuses in 50 years, including potentially adopting online elements that could increase participation by upward of 100,000 voters, according to party leaders.  The mix of offering same-day registration to any voter willing to join the party and an ability to remotely caucus will pose unprecedented outreach, organizing and turnout possibilities for Democratic candidates.”


Obstacles abound. The Iowa Democratic party is still debating how to implement the goals, which add complexity to an already complex caucus set-up. Rosenfeld explains it like this:

“The biggest challenge is not what will likely draw the early headlines: that Iowa likely will be conducting online voting in 2020’s caucuses. Nor will it concern what online technology, vendor, security and authentication would be used. Instead, the party will have to create a counting process where the votes coming into its 1,679 caucus sites are electronically tabulated in an open and coordinated fashion with each round of voting in the caucus sites—where participants break off into groups for each candidate.

Under Iowa’s caucus rules, presidential candidates with less than 15 percent of the votes are excluded from subsequent voting rounds. The caucus ends when all of the remaining contenders are above that threshold. In a typical caucus, supporters of the apparently marginal candidates realign with others, literally by moving across the room to join other groups as the voting continues. To keep this event’s spirit alive, which the Iowa party and DNC say is crucial, the participation and tabulation of voting has to be sequential, coordinated, transparent and verifiable.”

Got that? Me neither. And then, combining in-person caucusing with potential remote alternatives—such as on-line voting, mail-in voting [with ranked-choice ballots], tele-voting and/or proxy voting—could be a logistical and technological nightmare. In addition, the party needs to select technology vendors who can make it all work, and educate voters about the new procedures. It should also be noted that the state election authority, the office with the most experience in conducting elections, is not in charge of the caucuses. That’s the job of the state’s political parties, who do not have the same level of expertise or, presumably, credibility.

I congratulate the Democratic party and Iowa democrats for the impulse to improve the system. But I can’t help thinking that this stubborn insistence on holding caucuses—and being first—and allowing a rural state that doesn’t really represent the majority of Democrats to wield so much power—is the essential flaw in the system.