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 and is doing the same work for 2024. Deeth has also worked in the Johnson County Auditor’s Office since 1997.
“The Iowa Democratic Caucuses As We Knew Them Are Finally Dead,” read an October 6 headline at New York Magazine.
The truth is, The Iowa Democratic Caucuses As We Knew Them died on December 1, 2022. That night the Democratic president of the United States said, “Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process,” and announced a calendar of five early states that did not include Iowa. The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee quickly ratified President Joe Biden’s decision.
What followed was ten months of denial and secrecy from the Iowa Democratic Party, which finally ended Friday. The party announced it would release the results of the “mail-in caucus presidential preference” on March 5—Super Tuesday—the earliest date allowed by the DNC.
POINTLESS DELAY HURT IOWA DEMOCRATS
After all that delay, the final plan looks a lot like what I recommended last December: hold the caucus meeting on the same night as Iowa Republicans (which turned out to be January 15, 2024) but only conduct the legally required business of electing precinct level officers and uncommitted delegates. Then after the caucus, at a later date that complies with the DNC calendar, we could conduct the mail-in presidential vote.
That’s exactly what the IDP will do, according to an email sent to “SCC Members, Leaders, and Friends” just three minutes before the October 6 press conference. That’s basically no different than reading it in the Des Moines Register.
What took so long? No one really knows, because IDP leadership was tight-lipped about the “vigorous and lengthy negotiations with the DNC” from last December until this past week. Rank and file Democrats deserve to know the details of that. I have a strong opinion but no evidence. I suspect Georgia was a key factor in the delay; that state had an early Democratic state slot scheduled for February 13 or 20, but Georgia Republicans (who control the state) would not cooperate.
The Iowa Democratic Party’s entire process was too closed, too secretive, and too long. We should have been discussing how the 2024 process could and should work, in public, way back last winter, with Iowans and not with national committee members, and made the announcement in spring or early summer. That would have set expectations and reduced confusion.
The delay also made it impossible for Biden and his supporters to start planning for the fall 2024 campaign, because of extremely strict rules against campaigning in non-calendar compliant states. We had to watch fringe Democratic candidates Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chaos agents who could not care less about rules, speak unanswered at the Iowa State Fair and get free media. Meanwhile, local activists had to worry about whether we were allowed to dust off an old Biden-Harris 2020 sign for a parade—all because the IDP refused to set a contest date.
PARTY LEADERS STILL IN DENIAL ABOUT 2028
One thing we do know, from the last minute message to the grassroots leaders, is that IDP is playing for the future. “A fight right now over the early state calendar only weakens Iowa Democrats’ future chances,” said IDP Chair Rita Hart. “I have repeated reassurance from the Rules and Bylaws Committee and its co-chairs that the presidential nominating calendar discussions will once again be opened up for 2028.”
DNC Member Scott Brennan is more direct: “We intend to be first in 2028.” Slow down, Scott.
True, Hart and Brennan recognize an important reality: 2024 doesn’t matter. It matters even less now that Kennedy is taking his ball and going home for an independent campaign. And there is a certain benefit to Iowa’s somewhat cooperative approach to the DNC, as opposed to New Hampshire’s defiant insistence that they will break the calendar to stay First. (If they follow through, their delegation could and should not be seated at next year’s national convention.)
But this Play For 2028 approach is one more sign of denial. Treating 2024 as a temporary setback means we won’t be focused on building an Iowa Democratic Party for a post-First future. We’ll still be counting on the national campaigns, organizers and money to come in and do it for us, like they have for the last 50 years—just not this one cycle. And we’ll be spending 2025 and 2026 distracted by the Rules And Bylaws Committee again, just like we spent 2022 and 2023.
As for this year, the Iowa Democratic Party is preparing to spend a lot of money which could be used for more important things in order to conduct a pointless vote in an uncontested renomination race, simply to prove we have learned how to count votes after our problems in 2016 and 2020. The hope is that if we succeed, all will be forgiven and we will be restored to our “rightful” place on the calendar. We have county auditors who can count votes, at taxpayer expense, but more on that later.
The reality is, there are no “Iowa Democrats’ future chances.” The whole point of the DNC calendar reform was to get rid of Iowa (and take New Hampshire down a notch). They didn’t like our process, they didn’t like our demographics, they didn’t like our recent election results, and they didn’t like our arrogant attitude that First was our birthright.
Four more years won’t make us significantly less of a red state; rebuilding will take Iowa Democrats much longer than two cycles. It won’t make us any less old or any less white or any less rural. And exile from the early states for one meaningless re-election cycle won’t be enough punishment for a lot of corners of the party. Maybe we’ll get some other small token of appreciation for behaving better than New Hampshire, but Iowa doesn’t deserve to be considered for an early state slot until we get a state-run primary and until we win some elections.
SORTING THROUGH THE NEW PLAN’S DETAILS
For now, I need to be just a little positive and look at some details. The timeline announced Friday is as follows:
- Iowa Democrats will be able to request a presidential preference card (sic) starting November 1, 2023.
- Presidential preference cards (sic) will be mailed starting January 12, 2024.
- Iowa Democrats will hold our in-person caucuses January 15, 2024.
- The last day to request a presidential preference card (sic) is February 19, 2024.
- The Iowa Democratic Party will release results of our 2024 mail-in caucus presidential preference (sic) on March 5, 2024.
- Iowa Democrats will accept presidential preference cards (sic) postmarked on or before March 5, 2024.
First of all, let’s use honest language. Now that we don’t have to play word games with the New Hampshire Secretary of State, let’s drop the stupid and confusing term “presidential preference card.” It’s a ballot. And it’s not a “mail-in caucus presidential preference”—it’s a party-run primary.
The first ballot request date, November 1, is really, really soon. It’s still not clear what form those requests will take. If they’re on line, accommodation will need to be made for those without computers. If they’re paper, they’ll need to be distributed somehow. And there are many people who will only be able to get a request form if someone prints it and mails it to them, which is an expense. Who does that—the state party or the locals?
Ballots will be mailed January 12. There is a five week overlap period when requests will be coming in and ballots will be both be coming in and going out. This overlap period includes Caucus Night (now set for January 15). That means some people will come to the caucus with their ballots in hand and will want to turn them in. I would also expect IDP to include ballot requests in the caucus materials. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle for a volunteer caucus chair, and there’s a risk of ballots getting misplaced. It might be better to hold off on mailing the ballots just four days, until after the precinct caucuses.
That said, many people will not trust the post office with a ballot and will want to return it in person. In earlier versions of the plan, IDP talked about county drop boxes. How will county parties be expected to manage and safeguard that? The average county chair does not have a box that’s built like a tank and a 24 hour security camera like a county auditor does.
The party plans to both announce results on March 5 and accept ballots postmarked March 5. That’s going to mean a second set of results after caucus night to include the late arrivals. I think this is a rhetorical point. IDP wants to complain about the recent Republican driven change in state law that requires ballots to arrive before polls close on election day. Fine, but we’ll need to set some specified cut-off date.
As for March 5, I was hoping for a different date. Iowa’s results will be buried in the flood of results from both parties in other Super Tuesday states (to the extent that anyone cares about Biden 98 percent, Williamson 2 percent results). I would have preferred county convention day, March 23. That would have been a fun news handle for the county conventions (to the extent that anyone cares about Biden 98 percent, Williamson 2 percent results).
But, as I expected, IDP leaders decided that the important thing was to go as soon as possible to emphasize that we really, really want to be an early state again.
Not discussed in the party release: Whether or not names will be printed on the ballots, and if so, the process to qualify. Will they be machine countable, which is way more accurate than a hand count? If not, are we going to quibble about whether “Joe” or “Biden-Harris” or “Bidin” votes will count?
So there’s a lot more details to be fleshed out, and that will need to happen in less than four weeks before those requests start coming in.
THE BIG PICTURE
In the big picture, there is good news. The most important change happened months ago, even before Iowa Democrats were demoted in the calendar. The old system where people had to stand in the corner for hours of endless headcounts and realignments, in crowds of up to 900 people, is over. Anyone who simply wants to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate does not need to attend a meeting at one and only one specific time and place.
Since Iowa Republicans will not cooperate with an auditor-run primary election, a mail-in party run primary is as good as Democrats can do. The party of voting rights needs to contrast our improved, inclusive system with the same as it ever was Republican caucus, where if you cannot attend at 7:00 pm on a cold Monday evening, you cannot vote. And we should push for more.
The Iowa legislature’s 2024 session will begin on January 8, just a week before caucus night. Democratic legislators should emphasize voting rights by introducing a bill for a real, auditor-run Iowa presidential primary. Republicans won’t assign it to a committee, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a point Democrats should make, and a point that will make national news.
If you think trying to get back into the early states is important, pushing for a primary election will help Iowa’s standing with the national Democratic Party as well.
Top photo of blank presidential preference card from the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses is from the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of the National Museum of American History.