First thoughts on new Iowa Democratic caucus rules

After resisting major changes to the Iowa caucus process for decades, the Iowa Democratic Party has proposed rules that would make the 2020 caucuses much more accessible and transparent.

Although some inequities would remain baked into the caucus system, the reforms would be a huge step forward.

The Democratic National Committee adopted rules last year

that make caucuses more inclusive, transparent, and accessible to participants. Specifically, these reforms require caucuses to have absentee voting or another mechanisms that would give folks who can’t participate in person a way to join in the process. In addition, these reforms mandate that states provide a written vote to allow for a recount if needed.

Here’s the full document outlining new rules for the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses. For now, it’s only a draft.

During a February 11 call with Iowa and national reporters, state party chair Troy Price said the party will accept public comments on the proposal for the next 30 days. Sometime in late March or early April, State Central Committee members will vote on the rules package, after which it will go to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Price was confident the national governing body would accept the changes. “We have been in regular communication with the DNC” since last year, he said, adding that leaders went over the proposal last week with co-chairs of the Rules and Bylaws Committee. They’ve also discussed their plans with key Democrats in other early states (New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina).

Some central elements of the system will remain unchanged for 2020. For instance, state convention delegates will be assigned to counties and county convention delegates to precincts based on the number of votes cast there for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Fred Hubbell in 2018. So one precinct may allocate more county convention delegates based on high turnout last November, even if a different precinct has more caucus attendees on February 3, 2020.

In addition, party leaders decided to maintain a 15 percent threshold for viability in most precincts. They considered lowering that percentage, given how many people are running for president, but “as we started to look at the numbers and how that would affect caucus math, we quickly broke the caucus math and realized that it would actually add greater complication in the room,” Price explained.

FIVE MAJOR IMPROVEMENTS

Some disenfranchising and undemocratic aspects of the Iowa caucus system have troubled me since the first precinct caucus I attended in 1988. I poured a lot of time and effort into a series explaining and critiquing the process before the 2008 caucuses and revamped those posts in January 2016.

Over the years, I’ve also collected anecdotes about screwy caucus math to show how reporting delegate counts only (rather than raw votes for each candidate) can distort the preferences of those who attended a precinct caucus. I’ve also criticized Iowa Democratic leaders for not being open to meaningful changes and downplaying the barriers that prevented many thousands of politically engaged Iowans from participating.

So I approached the new plan with skepticism, looking for signs of empty gestures and half-measures.

I’m excited about five changes.

1. Almost every interested Democrat will have an opportunity to participate.

Years before Bleeding Heartland existed, I was a precinct captain for John Kerry, contacting registered Democrats in Windsor Heights 2 before the 2004 caucuses. The most frustrating conversations were not with neighbors who preferred Howard Dean or other rivals. Rather, I kept identifying Kerry supporters who would not attend our precinct caucus for one reason or another (shift work, out of town travel, caregiver responsibilities, a disability, anxiety about driving at night or being in a crowd).

Almost everyone in those groups will be able to express a presidential preference in the new “virtual caucus.”

Iowans who have registered as Democrats by December 31, 2019 will have a window in early January 2020 to sign up for the virtual caucus. They can do so for any reason; the party will not demand an excuse. But they have to sign up in advance–it won’t be an option for people who decide at the last minute they’d rather stay in. To prevent double voting, people who register for the virtual caucus will not be able to change their minds and show up at their precinct on February 3.

Using a telephone or other mobile device, virtual caucus-goers will be able to participate at one of the following six times.

Wednesday, January 29, 7:00 pm
Thursday, January 30, 12:00 pm
Friday, January 31, 7:30 am
Saturday, February 1, 10:00 am
Sunday, February 2, 2:00 pm
Monday, February 3, 7:00 pm

Real-time closed captioning, language translation and ASL interpretation will be available on request.

The last virtual session will run concurrently with in-person caucuses. According to Price, the thinking was that if people who registered for the virtual caucus attempt to caucus in person on February 3, they won’t simply be locked out of the process. Rather, organizers can advise them to call in using the number provided.

Virtual caucus-goers will be able to indicate up to five choices for president.

Results from the call-in caucuses will be aggregated by Congressional district, using a ranked choice process. The 15 percent viability threshold–an important part of the Iowa Democratic caucuses since the early 1970s–will be applied to results at the Congressional district level.

In other words, you don’t need at least 15 percent of your immediate neighbors to agree with you. Your preferred candidate may get delegates from the virtual caucus, provided at least 15 percent of those who called in from your Congressional district made the same choice.

The Iowa Democratic Party will provide all the presidential campaigns with lists of people who signed up for the virtual caucus and will let them know who has participated in each phone call so that organizers can stop targeting those people for GOTV.

However, no results from any virtual caucuses will be released until the evening of February 3.

While this plan will force participants to engage at one of the six specified times, the proposed schedule is far more flexible than the current system, which requires people to be in a specific place and time on one evening. The phone calls should also move more quickly than a typical precinct caucus, which can last more than two hours.

2. We will learn how many Iowans supported each presidential candidate.

The Iowa Republican caucuses have always functioned as a straw poll. The party collected pieces of paper naming each voter’s preferred candidate and released raw numbers showing how many caucus-goers backed each contender.

In contrast, the Iowa Democratic Party has only released delegate numbers from each precinct. Those can give a rough idea of the relative strength of candidates, but they erase all support for “non-viable” candidates and (depending on how many delegates come out of the precinct) may not always reflect which person had more support in the room.

Here are a couple of examples from 2016. Contacts who attended these precinct caucuses shared the raw numbers with me.

West Des Moines 226 in Dallas County assigned three county convention delegates. Reported result: Sanders 67 percent, Clinton 33 percent (two delegates for Sanders, one for Clinton). Head count after realignment: 66 for Sanders, 54 for Clinton.

West Des Moines 318 in Polk County assigned two county convention delegates. Reported result: Sanders 50 percent, Clinton 50 percent (one delegate each for Sanders and Clinton). Head count after realignment: 27 for Sanders, 52 for Clinton.

Price told reporters on February 11,

The DNC rules require us to release more than just the state delegate equivalents on caucus night. Rather, we will now release the raw counts on the first alignment, the raw counts on the second alignment, and the state delegate equivalents earned by each campaign.

But just to be clear: the apportionment of national convention delegates will be based only on the state delegate equivalents earned on caucus night. They will not be based off raw results.

Price also confirmed that raw numbers will be released for all virtual caucus participants.

That is huge.

We will know how many Iowans ranked each candidate as their first choice.

Looking back at my own precinct in 2008: we had 293 attendees. After the first division into preference groups, the totals were: Barack Obama 86, John Edwards 83, Hillary Clinton 63, Bill Richardson 28, Joe Biden 24, Chris Dodd 9, uncommitted 2, and Dennis Kucinich 1.

To be viable, candidates needed 44 supporters. After the second division into preference groups, Edwards had 115, Obama 104, and Clinton 72. Due to some caucus math complexity, our six delegates split two each for Obama, Edwards, and Clinton.

If similar scenarios play out next year–which seems likely, given the crowded field–the delegate counts won’t change, and we won’t have raw totals from each precinct. But at least we will have a straw poll number at the Congressional district and statewide level, which is a step toward allowing all voices to be heard.

3. Meaningful recounts will be possible.

In many precincts, no one records the number of caucus-goers supporting each candidate in the first division into preference groups, and no one preserves records of how many backed each candidate after realignment. So when the 2016 Democratic caucuses were decided by the narrowest margin to date, the Iowa Democratic Party “reviewed” the results but was not able to conduct a proper recount.

The new rules change that:

For the purpose of preserving the presidential preference division at each caucus, Presidential Preference Cards, including a signature from the participant and the participant’s legible printed name, will be used. These cards will be preserved by the county chair until the caucus results are certified.

“This is not a ballot,” Price emphasized during the call with reporters. It’s “solely to be used for us to be able to recount and record what happens in the room.” Campaigns can request a recount within 72 hours of the caucuses. If the result turns out to be very close, the party can ensure the state’s national delegates “accurately reflect what happens on caucus night.”

4. Reduced opportunities for gamesmanship.

At the 2020 caucuses, only Democrats from non-viable groups will be able to realign. Price explained,

We heard a lot of complaints after the 2016 process that there were some people who understood the caucus rules and were able to game the system. And they felt like they were at a disadvantage in the room. We wanted to eliminate that so that everyone felt like they had a level playing field when they walked into the room.

In my precinct in 1988, a few supporters of Michael Dukakis switched to Bruce Babbitt in order to deprive Paul Simon of a delegate. In David Redlawsk’s Iowa City precinct in 2008, some Obama supporters helped Edwards reach the 15 percent threshold, in order to take a delegate away from Clinton.

Those days are over, and good riddance.

Couldn’t wily precinct captains send some supporters over to the “uncommitted” corner for the first alignment? They could try, but that would be a gamble. Price confirmed: “Once a preference group is viable, their number is locked in. Their number can only go up and not down.” If at least 15 percent of caucus-goers in a precinct claim to be uncommitted during the first division into preference groups, they will not be allowed to switch to a different candidate later.

5. No realignment at county or district conventions.

DNC rules “require us to lock the caucus night results,” Price said. The national convention delegates will be allocated to various presidential candidates based on what happens on February 3 and in the virtual caucuses.

Because county and district convention delegates won’t be able to alter the DNC delegate numbers by switching allegiances, we will be spared a replay of ugly, divisive scenes like the 2016 Polk County convention fiasco.

ONE MAJOR SHORTCOMING

I would encourage State Central Committee or DNC members to insist on one change to the rules package.

Virtual caucus-goers will determine only 10 percent of the total state delegate equivalents, regardless of how many people call in.

Price acknowledged that the number involved some guesswork. The party has “no historical data” indicating how many people will choose to caucus virtually. Leaders decided “10 percent is a good place to start this conversation.” Depending on how many people use the option in 2020, the party could increase the number of delegates assigned by virtual participants for 2024.

I suspect the party set this number low to give campaigns a reason to prioritize in-person caucusing. If you identify a supporter of your candidate, you’re probably going to encourage that person to attend one of the precincts where 90 percent of state delegates will be allocated. Only supporters who cannot or will not attend a caucus will be pushed to call in.

I would rather see the virtual caucus participants assign delegates in proportion to their numbers. If 20,000 Democrats caucus virtually and 180,000 caucus in person, then 10 percent is the right share of delegates to assign based on the virtual results. But if 50,000 people sign up to caucus virtually and 200,000 show up at precinct caucuses on February 3, then the virtual caucuses should determine 20 percent of the total state delegates. If 100,000 people call in and 150,000 attend precinct caucuses, then 40 percent of the state delegates should be assigned based on the virtual results.

John Deeth, who has organized caucuses in Johnson County, wrote soon after the 2016 caucuses,

The fundamental problem on caucus night was, and will continue to be, that enough rooms that are big enough simply do not exist. Even if the parties GET all the biggest rooms, it’s only enough to make bad situations slightly less bad. And we – by we I mean the Johnson County Democrats and Republicans working together as a team – we didn’t get all the biggest rooms.

Deeth expressed concern yesterday that the new rules don’t give Iowa Democrats enough incentive to caucus virtually. Therefore, rooms will continue to be overcrowded, causing delays and other problems on caucus night. UPDATE: Deeth fleshed out his case.

Just over half of Iowa Hillary Clinton voters, and just under half of Fred Hubbell’s voters, chose an early ballot.

So, if you’re going to have a pre-set percentage, I’d be a lot more comfortable with the Virtual Caucus share of the delegates at 50% rather than 10 – especially since we need to get roughly 50% of the crowd out of the caucus rooms in order to fit.

I would also be a lot more comfortable encouraging people who are concerned about “how much” their vote will count to choose virtual caucusing rather than in person if the Virtual Caucus was weighted at 50% rather than 10. Sure, it’s a guessing game – but it’s a better guess with some math behind it. And if the guess is too high, well, then the people who were historically under-represented because they couldn’t attend in person will be over-represented for one cycle.

WHY DIDN’T THEY ALLOW IOWA DEMOCRATS TO SEND IN ABSENTEE BALLOTS?

I asked Price whether the party considered allowing Democrats to mail in absentee ballots. Wouldn’t that be more consistent with the DNC rules?

Price noted the national party does not require an absentee ballot. Caucus states just have to give others an opportunity to participate. “We did explore several options of how we might be able to do this.” They rejected the absentee ballot idea for three reasons.

  • Democratic leaders in caucus states that allowed absentee ballots in 2016 described “challenges” with that system.
  • It would not be possible to do a ranked-choice ballot in Iowa utilizing the optical scanner machines currently in use here. “They are not equipped to do so. We’ve talked to county auditors about that,” Price said.
  • Absentee ballots would be far more costly.
  • Taking into account logistics, finances, and “quite frankly, preserving the spirit of the caucuses,” party leaders felt virtual caucuses were a better way of allowing “non-present participation” than absentee ballots.

    ON TAKING YES FOR AN ANSWER

    Some longtime critics of the Iowa caucuses denounced the changes announced yesterday as “voter suppression” and argued the DNC should refuse to seat any delegates from Iowa.

    If I were in charge, all states would hold primaries. I have written thousands of words about the barriers that keep people out of caucuses, why primaries allow for broader participation, and why caucuses are not consistent with the one person, one vote principle.

    But it would be wrong to dismiss these changes as insignificant. The virtual caucus option will open the door to tens of thousands of Iowans who could not otherwise have attended the caucuses. Even though their impact on state delegate equivalents may be muted by capping the virtual caucus at 10 percent of the total, the Iowa Democratic Party will reveal a head count. So if one candidate’s supporters disproportionately participate virtually, we will know about it. In the past, we’ve never been able to see how many supporters of each candidate were unable or unwilling to caucus in person.

    Price asserted yesterday that the party was adopting new rules “not because we have to, but because we know that we are stronger as a party, we are stronger as a state, and we are stronger as a nation if everyone can participate in our political process.” That’s not credible. Over the years, when I have advocated for releasing head counts or expanding options for people who can’t caucus in person, party insiders have frequently told me we can’t do that, New Hampshire would never let us do that, that goes against our culture, caucuses are for party-building, not voting, and so on.

    So I’m confident almost none of this would be happening without pressure from the national party. Arguably the DNC should have done more to discourage states from holding caucuses, but the new rules did drag the Iowa Democratic Party into the 21st century. For that I am grateful.

    UPDATE: A lot of people have complained that the system is too convoluted and suggested Iowa should just have a primary instead. Deeth explained why that option isn’t on the table.

    • The virtual caucus

      may turn this into a primary because the raw vote is now being recorded. Caucuses are time-consuming events, and campaigns may struggle to get people to attend in person when an easier option is available.

      Marry this to the reporting of the raw vote, and you may find well over 10% of Iowans chose the virtual caucus, which in turn may very well mean the raw vote becomes more important in interpreting the results than the county delegates.

      If I am right this is a revolution for the Iowa Caucuses.

    • Realignment by non-viable groups only

      in 2008 at our precinct caucus in West Des Moines, I chaired the Hillary group. We had at least 3 people who moved to another group after the first alignment. So this new approach has an inverse approach of not allowing people to realign once viable. Potential consequences could be remaining undecided the first round, just to be able to make a move once one can assess the room. Not an approach I would choose, but it is another potential consequence of this rule.

      To me the greatest value of this is that it speeds up the Caucus process by reducing one round of alignment and by holding those viable in place. I’ve heard of the gamesmanship you described, but have only seen people move based on a promise to some other candidate that after the first alignment.

      I’m thinking about how a campaign might use the virtual caucus to build strength.

    • I'm very surprised and pleased...

      …that I may be able to participate in an Iowa caucus again. That would not be true if the only option were a traditional caucus. I’ve been going to those for forty years even though I always disliked the process and wished Iowa had primaries.

      The last straw was arriving at the last presidential caucus and seeing that yet AGAIN there were not nearly enough chairs and dozens of us would have to stand. My aging back hurt for two days afterward. I’ll never go to another traditional caucus but may do the virtual version, depending on how difficult/meaningful that would be.

      As for the DNC pressure for Iowa to change, hooray. That helps to make up, just a little, for the DNC foisting Patty Judge’s last (I hope to heaven) campaign upon us.

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