Iowa Democrats should not give up on making caucuses accessible

The Democratic National Committee has dropped the hammer. As first reported by the Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel, the DNC is rejecting proposals from state parties in Iowa and Nevada to hold “virtual caucuses,” allowing eligible voters to participate by phone.

After receiving a recommendation from technology and security teams, DNC chair Tom Perez and the co-chairs of the Rules and By-Laws Committee announced on August 30,

We concur with the advice of the DNC’s security experts that there is no tele-caucus system available that meets our standard of security and reliability given the scale needed for the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the current cyber-security climate. For these reasons, we are recommending to the committee that virtual caucus systems not be used in the Iowa and Nevada 2020 caucus processes, and unless compliance can be met through other means, that the committee consider a waiver.

You can read the DNC memo here.

In a news release enclosed in full below, Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said,

“While only five months remain before the caucuses, we will explore what alternatives may exist to securely increase accessibility from previous years given the time allowed. We’re dedicated to expanding accessibility throughout the process so that no Iowan faces a barrier at their caucus. We are confident that this will be resolved in the coming weeks.”

Party officials have not responded to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiry about other possibilities, such as absentee ballots or caucus locations that are open all day on February 3, 2020, for Democrats to drop by to register a preference in the presidential race. I agree with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has endorsed the idea of “handmarked, ranked-choice paper ballots for absentee caucus-goers” as a way to “increase turnout while providing strong protections against hacking.”

Iowa Democratic insiders have balked at absentee ballot proposals in the past, for fear New Hampshire’s secretary of state would consider that approach too much like a primary. Under a New Hampshire law, that state must always hold the first primary. For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic leaders have presented a united front for fear that critics of starting the presidential nominating process in small, largely white states would exploit divisions in order to overhaul the calendar of primaries and caucuses.

Price said in February that the party had ruled out absentee ballots for other reasons, including cost and the fact that optical scanning machines now in use across Iowa cannot read ranked-choice ballots.

In the same conference call with reporters six months ago, Price asserted that the party proposed the virtual caucus plan “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.” Past experience suggests that without being forced by the DNC, the state party would have done nothing significant to give a voice to those who cannot attend a precinct caucus in person.

Now that the DNC has signaled it will grant a waiver to Iowa, we’ll find out whether our party leaders have any real commitment to accessibility.

I’ve written thousands of words since 2007 about the disenfranchising aspects of the Iowa caucus system. It’s not debatable: we know many politically engaged people are not able to attend for reasons including disability, work schedules, family caregiver obligations, temporary illness, aversion to crowds, or inability to drive at night. We know that even “closed” primaries (in which only registered Democrats can vote) allow for far greater participation than the Iowa caucuses as they have operated for four decades. The idea that people can simply plan ahead doesn’t help those who are housebound or cannot get time off from work (a problem even for some deeply committed activists).

Pat Rynard’s latest commentary for Iowa Starting Line assumes that only those who can be present on February 3, 2020 will be able to caucus. Reverting to the old rules would be an enormous mistake. In the 21st century, voters expect to have a say in which presidential candidate wins their party’s nomination.

If the moral case for expanding political participation doesn’t appeal to you, try this on for size: going back to rules that disenfranchise everyone who can’t spend two hours in an overcrowded room on a cold night in February would undermine Iowa’s case for retaining its early spot in the calendar for future election cycles.

I’ll update this post as needed with further developments.

Final note: I am inclined to agree with Rynard that Joe Biden benefits most if the 2020 Iowa caucuses have no absentee option. Biden seems to have more support among older, experienced caucus-goers, while several other contenders are banking on strong turnout among people who have not previously been involved.

On the other hand, Armando argued that the latest news is bad for Biden’s prospects in Iowa, because some other contenders have more enthusiastic support. He noted that Hillary Clinton did far better in primary states compared to caucus states in 2016. Clinton also won non-binding primaries in Nebraska and Washington, where Bernie Sanders had convincingly won earlier caucuses.

Presidential candidate Julian Castro said in a statement this morning that while campaigning in Iowa, “I’ve heard from teachers, home care workers, nurses, single parents, shift workers, and senior citizens who tell me the same thing: one night of caucusing is not enough.” He urged the DNC to allow some form of absentee voting.

Iowa Democratic Party news release, August 30:

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price released the following statement in response to the DNC and RBC chairs’ recommendation not to approve Iowa’s virtual caucus plan.

“Regardless of today’s news, we remain confident the 2020 Iowa Caucuses will be our best yet, and set the standard for years to come.

“While only five months remain before the caucuses, we will explore what alternatives may exist to securely increase accessibility from previous years given the time allowed. We’re dedicated to expanding accessibility throughout the process so that no Iowan faces a barrier at their caucus. We are confident that this will be resolved in the coming weeks.

“This past year, the IDP worked around the clock to make sure that the 2020 caucuses are our most successful ever. It is why we have nearly 80% of our precinct locations locked, nearly 600 people in the caucus leadership pipeline – putting us ahead of the pace set by previous years. We rebuilt infrastructure in places where none existed just a year before. And we have procedures in place that will ensure our caucuses are more transparent and accountable than any other time in our past.

“We were charged by the DNC to create a system that would increase participation, and the Iowa Democratic Party did just that with the virtual caucus. The virtual caucus represents years of work by activists, volunteers, party leaders, former campaign officials, staff, and so many others to find a system that expands participation and preserves the spirit of the caucuses.

“We proposed our plan seven months ago to give us the longest ramp possible to build this system. But in that time, we know the threat landscape has changed. We have seen time and again the increased threat by foreign state actors and the continued reluctance by Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress to take this threat seriously.

“As Chair of the Party is it my job to protect our voters, protect our party, and to protect the integrity of our first in the nation caucuses. We are obviously disappointed by this outcome, and we continue to have confidence in the abilities of our vendors, but if the DNC does not believe the virtual caucus can be secure, then we cannot go forward.”

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