John Deeth has volunteered for the Johnson County Democrats and been involved in caucus planning since 2004. He was the lead organizer for the Johnson County caucuses in 2016 and 2020. Deeth has also worked in the Johnson County Auditor's Office since 1997.
I never set out to be The Caucus Organizer for the Johnson County Democrats. The role landed on me by accident in 2004. Nearly every experienced party activist was involved in a presidential campaign, and almost no one was doing the logistics work of finding rooms, recruiting chairs, stuffing packets, and getting training done. The skill set overlapped closely with my job at the county auditor's office, so I stepped in to help.
Each cycle, my role got bigger and bigger. By 2016 I was seen as the Person In Charge, a role I repeated in 2020 and again in the recent midterm caucuses.
But after a lot of struggling, I've decided it's a role I won't take on again.
HIGH CAUCUS TURNOUT IS NOT A BLESSING
Each cycle, the job got bigger because the turnout got bigger. I don't mind hard work. I regularly put in 80 hour weeks during election season. But I do mind work that's futile. I do mind work that's counter-productive. And I'm no longer comfortable with enabling a system that I believe is wrong.
The first year I was involved in caucus planning, Johnson County took a great leap forward in turnout, from 4000 attendance in 2000 to over 11,000 in 2004. For the first time, we saw rooms that were crammed beyond capacity.
So we started getting bigger rooms. But the turnout kept growing - to 18,363 in 2008, even though the January 3 date meant most of our students were out of town. We jumped to 19,513 in 2016 and 21,436 in 2020. My personal caucuses kept getting bigger, too - from 100 in 2000 to 300 in 2008 to 430 in 2016 to 750 in 2020.
Some might think that such high turnout is a blessing. Wow! you must have signed up a lot of new volunteers and committee members! Nothing could be more wrong.
The change of the caucuses from neighborhood meeting to mass attendance event means more new people not trained in tradition and parliamentary procedure, and less committed to organizing the party, who just want to vote and go home - which 90 percent of attendees do as soon as the delegate counts are locked in.
But first we make them stand in line for 45 minutes, and then we make them stand in a corner for three hours to vote. And this chaos is their first impression of the local party.
The rules of a caucus are set up for 40 people in a living room. Once the caucus grows above the capacity of a grade school gym—this isn't just a Johnson County problem, the average Iowa Democratic caucus goer attended a caucus of 191 people—those rules just don't work anymore. You can't organize in a crowd of 945 people, the biggest Johnson County caucus on record. You can only do crowd control and anger management.
Each cycle, I started earlier. Each cycle I booked bigger and bigger rooms, sometimes at costs in the thousand of dollars, until we were in the biggest indoor spaces that existed in each precinct short of Carver Hawkeye Arena.
Better organizing and training and planning can only do so much, even if your county's volunteer organizer has 24 years of professional experience in election administration. All I managed to do was make a bad situation slightly less bad.
Spaces larger than a grade school gym, in or near neighborhoods, are few and far between. Smaller precincts, one suggestion I keep hearing, won't help. That just means we would need three grade school gyms where only one exists. All we can do is book the one gym that exists and pray that no one calls the fire marshal.
When the biggest room in or near the precinct is no longer big enough, the only answer is to get some of those people out of the room.
WE NEED TO BE THE PARTY OF VOTING RIGHTS
But the overcrowding isn't even the biggest problem. Fairness and access is the biggest problem, and that's not just logistics. It's a challenge to us to live up to our ideals.
The Democratic Party is the party of voting rights, and we need to be the party of voting rights not just on election day, but on caucus night. We need fewer people in our caucus rooms but we need more people in our nominating process.
We already limit who can attend a caucus by making it a mandatory must attend in person meeting - even the satellite caucuses we had in 2020 still required attendance in one place at one time and required more advance planning and pre-registration than many people's schedules allowed.
The overcrowding makes attendance a physical and mental endurance test: walking many blocks in the dark from the nearest parking space, and sitting uncomfortably or standing for hours, large cavernous spaces with bad acoustics, and high confusing noise and stress levels that strain the capacity of those of us on the autism spectrum. I've seen seniors near tears at our office, begging for an absentee ballot.
A state or district party that only has to pull off one large convention can or should manage to check off all the ADA boxes. It's asking too much for a county party, with no financial help from the state party, to conduct dozens of district-convention-sized caucuses all at the same time, and be 100 percent compliant and legally liable if someone sues. It's not that we don't care—it's just that there aren't that many sound systems and babysitters and sign language interpreters available all at once.
There are other barriers to participation: schedules, transportation, and physical presence in your community. This one hits me close to home. My wife missed the 2008 caucuses because our sons were small and did not want to go, and in 2016 she had last minute mandatory overtime. I would have missed last month's mid-term caucus if my county had not decided to go virtual, as I was out of state helping care for my aging parents.
I'm no longer willing to book the rooms and recruit and train the chairs for the same old Must Be Physically Present process. I'm not even willing to attend anymore, knowing that there are so many others who can't.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRY NEW THINGS
I want to pass my experience along to anyone else who wants this role, and I'm willing to help implement new ideas - not minor repairs, but real changes.
Our long range goal should be a presidential primary. I understand all too well that Republicans control our state government and are not interested in changing. But it should still be our goal. I'm working to get it into our platform, and I'm hoping that at some point a legislator will be brave and introduce a primary bill.
While we pursue that goal, we should also work to make our last caucuses better.
The mid-term caucus, where dozens of counties converted to a virtual or hybrid format in just two weeks, shows that we can be really creative and inclusive when we're given the chance.
2024 may be our opportunity to try new things. President Joe Biden is likely to run for re-election, which will largely take questions of Who Benefits? out of the mix. And with longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner retiring, we may have a chance to do what we haven't before.
Give people what they want. Let them vote and go home - let them vote all day long and go home. Give them absentee ballots - real ones that they can mark at home in secret. We should experiment with true absentee ballots, or multi-day early voting like Nevada did in 2020, or a "firehouse caucus" format where voting is open all day long at caucus sites, or all of these things.
I'm not here to argue about First, or about how representative my state is. That's up to the national committee. But I will say that we can no longer accept First as an excuse for a flawed process. For me, it's time to work on improving that process rather than enabling it.
Top image: Democrats crowd in at Iowa City 17, the biggest caucus in the state in February 2020 with attendance of 860. Photo by Jeff Charis-Carlson provided by the author and published with the photographer's permission.
First-in-the-nation has run its course
I have attended most Iowa Democratic caucuses since I stood up for Shirley Chisholm in 1972, and I've chaired my share. Now I say AMEN, JOHN DEETH! And thank-you for your service. ~Dan Clark, Muscatine
Thank you, John Deeth
Thank you for all the good hard work you've done over the years, and thank you for writing this excellent essay. I've been going to caucuses since 1980, and unless/until the changes you recommend become reality, I'll not be going to any more. I'll vote, donate, and try to help Democrats win. But the current caucus system needs to end.
I have lived where there are late primaries and first-in-nation caucus. I have heard as much "my vote is not counted" from partisans in both types of states. If the majority wants primaries, then switch to primaries. The only reason I have heard for caucuses is the party building element. In the two decades I have lived in Iowa, I have felt more that my voice as a Democrat did not matter to the party leadership than I ever felt my vote was not counted when I could not attend caucus. Over the years, I have done volunteer work for the party and candidates. Each time, I quickly stopped returning because of the attitude that I was nothing more than another drone for the leaders to use. I do not object to work of being a drone; I object to the muzzle I feel I wear when I try to speak. The party needs to stop obsessing over first in the nation presidential selection and start working on building networks that allow communication from the bottom up, not only from the top down. (Side note: if the Republican dream of retirees moving to Iowa for tax-free status comes true, I suspect most of those moving here will be Republican voters and activists, not Democrats, so there is another reason to be sure Democrats have a way to be heard whether they are new to Iowa or have been here for decades.)