Staff Columnist

Abolish the undemocratic Iowa caucuses

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, who has called for states with more diversity than Iowa and New Hampshi
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, who has called for states with more diversity than Iowa and New Hampshire to have front-row seats in the presidential nominating process, speaks Aug. 9 to voters at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post)

“Julian Castro is right” is not a sentence I thought I would write.

But 2019 has been a crazy ride and here we are. This week in Cedar Rapids, Castro said, “We can’t say to black women, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you, you’re the ones that are powering our victories in places like Alabama’ in 2018, and then turn around and start our nominating contest in the two states that have barely any black people in them. I mean, that doesn’t make sense.”

It would be easy to say that Castro is just bitter because of his low polling in the state. But his low polling numbers mean he can speak the truth with nothing to lose. He is right: Letting Iowa keep its first-in-the-nation status is unconscionable and undemocratic. We cannot sit here in our seats of corn, soy and power and preach racial justice and equality and then, by virtue of being a predominantly white state, exclude people of color from the caucuses.

Iowa should not be first for the presidential nominating process. Simply put, our first-in-the nation status privileges the voices of Iowans who are over 90 percent white. Additionally, the bad weather and the drawn-out process of the caucuses means the voices of disabled people, low-income, third-shift workers and parents of young kids are not included.

Allowing Iowa to be first works as a cone of silence on the political process, privileging the voices of upper middle-class white voters.

This isn’t a Republican or a Democratic problem. This is a national political problem. Iowa Democratic leaders have been reticent to blow up the system because, frankly, they benefit from the power and access that our first-in-the-nation status provides. And so does the newspaper, my employer, and so do I, as someone who makes a living off writing about the intersection of politics and culture.

But personal benefit is not enough of a reason to continue to disenfranchise voters.

Our presidential nominating process is currently the opposite of democratic. And in a country that has historically excluded the voices of people of color, immigrants and low-income people with voter suppression and stringent ID laws, we need to do better. And we can’t just talk about doing better, we actually have to do better.

Iowa’s status currently is precarious. The conversations about why we get to be first anyway are as predictable as snowfall. After all, we only got here through political expediency. And it’s only been since 1972 that Iowa has been first in the nation for the Democratic caucus and 1976 for the Republicans.


The strength of Iowa is it’s a place that forces politicians to get to know people. It’s a place where it’s hard to buy an election with big media buys. Which in part, led to Barack Obama’s early success here in 2008. But Iowa isn’t the only state where that is possible. It’s not enough of a justification to continue to suppress the voices of an entire nation. Remember when Pat Robertson came in second in the Republican caucus? Remember when Mike Huckabee won? And all it takes is a cycle where we don’t pick the winner to have the whole enterprise pulled out from beneath us.

In 2016, NPR did a study to find out which state was most representative of our nation. The answer: Illinois. As it is our rival to the east, no one in Iowa likes this idea. But you don’t have to like it for it to be necessary. Imagine candidates, instead of standing on bales of straw, standing on giant piles of cash. Instead of eating pork tenderloins, doing their best to eat a deep-dish Chicago pizza without a fork. Imagine instead, a presidential nominating process that reflects all people in America and not just the few.

Recently, the Democratic National Committee has discussed changing the caucus process to make it more accessible, but nothing of substance has been done. We can keep discussing and discussing and wringing our hands about how nice it would be if we were more diverse, while the world burns — or we could change.

Taking away Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and giving it to a state that is more representative of who America is is a necessary bold step, one that no one in Iowa will ever take. But it will be taken from us, if we don’t change.

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