"Plan B" for the Iowa caucuses will leave many disenfranchised

The Iowa Democratic Party has approved a plan to replace the "virtual caucus" recently nixed by the Democratic National Committee.

But while a news release hailed the proposal to "increase participation and make the caucuses more accessible for Iowans who have traditionally been unable to attend their in-person precinct caucus," many Democrats won't be able to use satellite caucuses.

The party's news release (enclosed in full below) did not include a copy of the new delegate selection plan, which the State Central Committee has unanimously approved. Key points:

  • Democrats can apply to hold a satellite caucus on the evening of February 3, 2020 "at places like factories, group homes, or community gathering places [...]. This option will be especially useful for shift workers, Iowans with disabilities, Iowans serving overseas, and students."
  • State Central Committee members who are neutral in the presidential race will serve on a special committee to review applications for satellite caucuses.
  • Each satellite caucus will have a precinct chair "who is charged with overseeing the room, managing volunteers, and reporting the results on caucus night."
  • Results from all satellite caucuses in each Congressional district will be reported as if they were a separate county. It's not clear whether those results will be weighted like the party intended for the "virtual caucus" (accounting for around 9 percent of all state delegates).
  • The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee will surely approve this plan. There are no absentee ballots or early voting to upset New Hampshire's secretary of state. The satellite caucuses will be in-person meetings, eliminating the hacking concerns that sank the tele-caucus plan.

    Hundreds or perhaps thousands of Democrats may participate in the satellite caucuses, a big step forward from the 119 people who caucused at four satellite sites in 2016. But lots of people won't have any more access than they would have under the rules in place for decades.

    Only shift workers in large workplaces could realistically apply to hold a caucus on-site. Even for them, the option's not guaranteed to be accessible. Will employers give them space to convene and allow a large group to go on break for an hour or more at the same time?

    People on the evening shift in retail or service jobs couldn't hold a satellite caucus. Neither could most people responsible for public safety or health care. A hospital can't leave patients unattended or emergency rooms short-staffed while doctors, nurses, and aides disappear for an hour or more. The virtual caucus plan envisioned five windows for Democrats to participate during the week before the caucuses. Under the new plan, if you can't make yourself available on the evening of February 3, 2020, you are out of luck.

    I love the idea of satellite caucuses in group homes or assisted living facilities. But thousands of Iowans with disabilities live in their own homes. Ditto for senior citizens who don't drive, or don't drive at night. A satellite caucus doesn't give those people the same access as a phone-in caucus.

    Iowans serving in the military out of state could and should organize satellite caucuses. But this plan would do nothing for Iowans living abroad for other reasons, as I did during the 1992 and 2000 caucuses.

    Satellite caucuses for students may be feasible on Iowa college campuses, but Iowans studying at out-of-state or overseas institutions are unlikely to have enough people in their cohort to apply for a satellite caucus.

    Any neighborhood with big apartment complexes should apply to hold a satellite caucus. But lots of Iowa precincts are like mine: lots of rental homes and duplexes, but few apartments.

    "Snowbirds" who legally reside in Iowa but spend winters in warmer climates could have participated in the virtual caucus but will be excluded under the new plan, unless they happen to live in some senior community with lots of other Iowans.

    Caregivers who need to be home in the evenings or anyone who's out of town for work on February 3 won't be in a position to apply for a satellite caucus either.

    Maybe it was too late to arrange for absentee ballots. Maybe Democratic Party volunteers couldn't possibly handle thousands of absentee ballots securely, as county auditors Jamie Fitzgerald, Roxanna Moritz, and Travis Weipert wrote in this commentary for Iowa Starting Line.

    But let's not fool ourselves: the vast majority of Iowans who have been unable to participate in past caucuses will be out in the cold in 2020 again.

    Another unintended consequence: the new plan will create more crowded conditions in larger counties and college towns, since those who would have caucused by phone for convenience or privacy will now have to show up in person to express a preference for a presidential candidate.

    I expect chaotic scenes in many locations, since it will be difficult to physically separate and count six or eight preference groups in rooms stuffed to fire hazard levels. Journalists from all over the country will be covering some of these large precincts, and what they capture on camera probably won't look like a neighborhood meeting or exercise in deliberative democracy.

    I understand why some security experts determined a virtual caucus "would have been a hacking nightmare," and I'm relieved the Iowa Democratic Party won't apply for a waiver from DNC requirements to provide some form of non-present participation. Nevertheless, it's unfortunate that the 2020 caucuses will take only a baby step toward more inclusion. In the 21st century, people expect to have a voice in something as important as the first step toward electing a president. I also agree with David Redlawsk (author of a book about the Iowa caucuses) that ongoing problems with accessibility will be an effective weapon for those who want to knock Iowa out of an early place on the 2024 calendar.

    UPDATE: The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee conditionally approved the plan on September 20, the Iowa Democratic Party announced in a news release. The Rules Committee’s action today means that Iowa’s plan has met the spirit of the DNC rules, and will be moved into full compliance after further review by DNC staff."

    I forgot to mention one important thing. One big problem with the virtual caucus plan was that the Iowa Democratic Party capped the number of statewide delegates for virtual caucus-goers at about 9 percent of the total. So even if 50,000 people had participated by phone, they would have determined about 9 percent of delegates. For that reason, presidential campaigns were discouraging supporters from caucusing by phone.

    The irony is that if the party allocates 9 percent of statewide delegates based on results from satellite caucuses, the Democrats who take part in them may punch above their weight. Imagine 200,000 people attending regular precinct caucuses and only a few hundred or a few thousand caucusing in alternative locations like workplaces or nursing homes.

    Iowa Democratic Party news release, September 19:

    Iowa Democratic Party to Propose Updated Delegate Selection Plan for 2020 Iowa Caucuses

    DES MOINES — Today, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) released a proposed updated delegate selection plan for the 2020 Iowa Caucuses that fulfills the party’s goals of increasing voter participation and securely expanding accessibility. Significantly expanding on the existing satellite caucus structure, Iowa Democrats will have the opportunity to caucus during extended hours at a venue other than their assigned precinct location on February 3, 2020.

    Keeping with the spirit of the DNC rules and regulations, this proposal will increase participation and make the caucuses more accessible for Iowans who have traditionally been unable to attend their in-person precinct caucus. The Iowa State Central Committee voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal, and it now goes to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee for review.

    “Iowa Democrats have worked incredibly hard to make sure that the 2020 caucuses are the most successful in our state’s history. Organizers, activists and volunteers are preparing for the caucuses earlier than ever before to bring voters into our party, and satellite caucuses will build on that work while increasing accessibility on caucus night,” said IDP Chair Troy Price. “There are many challenges with developing a new system, especially in such a short period of time. And a satellite caucus system is the best possible solution to build on the great work of caucus organizers and keep focused on our goal of giving more Iowans a voice in our party and building momentum up-and-down the ticket in 2020. We look forward to discussing this proposal with the Rules and Bylaws Committee members.”

    About the proposal:

    The 2020 satellite caucus proposal will allow for additional caucus locations on February 3 to expand participation for people who cannot attend their in-person precinct caucus.

    The IDP will expand the constituency engagement team to ensure the party is reaching communities across the state, as well as accessibility staff to make sure the caucus system works for all Iowans.

    Iowa Democrats can apply to hold a satellite site at places like factories, group homes, or community gathering places, to better accommodate people who cannot attend their in-person caucus. This option will be especially useful for shift workers, Iowans with disabilities, Iowans serving overseas, and students.

    The IDP will create a special satellite caucus review committee that will review applications and determine approval. The committee members will be appointed by the IDP Chair, and it will be comprised of SCC members who have pledged neutrality in the presidential race.

    Just like precinct caucuses, each satellite location will have a trained captain who is charged with overseeing the room, managing volunteers, and reporting the results on caucus night.

    The results will be reported using the same method as precinct caucus locations. The satellite caucuses will create one additional county in each Congressional District.

    • Thanks for this true post

      I know a young woman who would vote in her local caucus if she weren't going to be in Japan this winter. I doubt if she'll be able to attend a satellite caucus there.

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