Government

After 'virtual' caucuses rejection, Iowa Democrats back to square one

Ideas for making Democratic caucuses more open in short supply

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (left) and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price appear Aug. 30 in Des Moines after news broke that the national Democratic Party would reject the state party’s plans to allow “virtual” caucuses by phone. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (left) and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price appear Aug. 30 in Des Moines after news broke that the national Democratic Party would reject the state party’s plans to allow “virtual” caucuses by phone. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — With the presidential caucuses just five months away, time is running out for the Iowa Democratic Party to announce a Plan B — if it has one — for heeding the national party’s call to make the process more accessible.

The state party’s plan to meet that mandate was to introduce a virtual caucus, where Iowa Democrats could express their presidential preference over the phone instead of in person.

But that officially was rejected Aug. 30 at the national level as being too prone to hacking by an adversarial government.

So now what? Coming up with a new plan that pleases both the national Democratic Party and New Hampshire Democrats who hold the nation’s first presidential primary election will be a daunting task. And it could put Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status in jeopardy in the future.

“The alternatives to this (virtual caucus) approach are things like a mail-in absentee ballot, which sounds an awful lot like a primary, which makes things extraordinarily difficult,” said David Redlawsk, chair of the University of Delaware’s political science department and author of “Why Iowa,” a book that supports the Iowa caucuses’ first-in-the-nation role.

“It’s not clear there is any acceptable option that doesn’t either run afoul of the DNC or New Hampshire.”

Democratic National Committee leaders said during Friday’s meeting they hope to meet again in the next few weeks to hear Iowa’s backup plan.

But those options — and the time frame itself — are limited, at best.

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In a primary election, voters may cast a ballot throughout Election Day or in the weeks preceding it by absentee ballots.

But Iowa’s caucuses require participants’ attendance at a prescribed date and time, usually on a Monday evening in late January or early February, often lasting for hours. This cycle, the caucuses are Feb. 3.

That format, critics argue, makes it difficult for some people to participate because they work the second shift, cannot find child care or are unable to travel on a winter night. Or maybe just don’t have the stomach for enduring gatherings that can last for hours.

After the 2016 presidential election, the national Democratic Party established new requirements that caucus states — like Iowa and fellow early-voting state Nevada — devise ways of making their processes more accessible.

But complicating any solution for Iowa is New Hampshire.

That state goes immediately after Iowa, and takes pride in its status as the first state to hold a presidential primary.

Any adjustment to Iowa’s caucuses that make the process too similar to an election would upset New Hampshire, and thus upset the carefully balanced unity among the early-voting states.

New Hampshire had given its blessing to virtual caucuses. But the rejection puts Iowa Democrats back at square one.

“Obviously we are disappointed by this recommendation,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told DNC committee members during Friday’s telephone meeting. “We’re working to see what options might exist.”

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Price did not detail any specific options under consideration by Iowa Democrats, and he was tight-lipped about any potential backup plans when asked by reporters at a news conference after news of the national party’s expected decision broke.

But he hinted there were alternatives.

“We are working to see what options remain for us with the time that we have left,” Price said at the time. “I’m not going to speculate on what those alternatives are.”

But they cannot be many, and none of them provide obvious relief for all the parties involved, caucus experts said.

The most likely option, experts said, is granting caucus participants the ability to cast some form of an absentee ballot.

That would allow people to participate in the caucuses without having to attend. And that would makes the DNC happy.

But permitting absentee ballots — especially ones with the candidates’ names already listed — is very similar to a primary election. And that would not make New Hampshire happy.

“It is a real narrow needle because on the one hand you’ve got the DNC saying you have to have an absentee process, and on the other hand you have New Hampshire saying, ‘We have to have the first election,’ and looking very critically at what constitutes an election,” said John Deeth, an Iowa Democratic activist who works in the Johnson County auditor’s office.

Another possibility would be to keep the caucuses open all day, giving participants a chance to come in at any point and submit their presidential preference — but just don’t call it a ballot.

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That way the caucus format could largely be preserved, while giving participants a longer time frame and shorter time commitment.

But such a format could create logistical nightmares for the state party, which would be forced to rent and staff building space for a full day, not just a few hours.

Another, far more drastic option, would be for Iowa Democrats to simply scrap the caucuses and change to a primary election.

There are two main issues with that.

Such a move, obviously, would upset New Hampshire and likely cause it to vote earlier.

More specifically, and upsetting to Iowa Democrats, Iowa could get knocked down the line in the nominating schedule, losing its prominent status as the leadoff state.

But even if Iowa Democrats conceded and decided to change from a caucus to a primary, it would require revising state law. And currently, Iowa’s state lawmaking bodies are under the control of Republicans — who at the moment are not under similar pressure to alter their caucuses.

Iowa Democrats have a couple of weeks to devise a plan. If they can’t, or if their next plan is rejected, too, national Democrats have said they will grant a waiver from the new rules and allow the caucuses, for 2020 at least, to proceed.

That would in effect punt the hard decisions to be made before the 2024 primary cycle.

Price has indicated he is not interested in a waiver, that his preference is to come up with a solution that preserves the spirit of the caucuses, allows for more participation and does not intrude on New Hampshire’s territory.

It will not be easy.

“If you’re going to thread that needle, you’re going to have to be really creative,” said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political-science professor at Drake University and author of a book on the Iowa caucuses. “My hope is that assuming 2020 is intact and we move forward with the 2020 caucuses as anticipated, that there are then four years of really good, creative people at the table to figure out what the caucus can look like going forward that won’t damage the integrity of the caucus process but will allow for greater participation for those who are unable to be there in person.

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“And just to be perfectly honest, I have no idea what that looks like. I don’t think anybody does.”

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