BREAKING NEWS

Iowa Democrats approve 'satellite' caucuses as 'virtual' alternative

Idea comes after national party cited cybersecurity concerns in its rejection

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (left) and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price appear Aug. 30 at a news conference in Des Moines after the national party had overruled the state party’s plan to let some people participate in 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 at a news conference in Des Moines after the national party had overruled the state party’s plan to let some people participate in caucuses by phone. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Top Iowa Democrats approved a plan Thursday to include “satellite caucuses” that would allow Iowans to participate in picking a presidential candidate if they are unable to attend an official caucus next February.

The proposal for expanding accessibility was discussed Thursday evening during an Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee meeting and approved on a 40-0 vote to be presented to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and By-Laws meeting Friday.

“This is a solid plan and it allows us to meet the goals that we have set as a party,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price during a conference call with committee members.

“Satellite caucuses allow us to expand participation, knock down some of the barriers to participation and meet the goal of giving more people a voice in our party,” he added. “This system can be implemented in the time allowed, it does not affect the calendar, it does not use technology and can be implemented with the resources we have available to us.”

Iowa officials spent the past two weeks considering options and alternatives after the DNC rules panel expressed cybersecurity concerns in rejecting the state party’s plan to let some people participate by telephone in “virtual caucuses” before the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses to be held Feb. 3.

“In spite of the challenges that we have seen here over the last four weeks, we remain on target to have a tremendously successful caucuses” in 2020, Price said.

If approved, the satellite caucuses would let voters who are unable to participate in the nominating process in person to propose alternative sites that could include workplaces, senior living centers or other locations if party officials deem there is a need.

The DNC decision in August to reject the virtual caucuses idea left Iowa Democrats “basically between a rock and a hard place,” 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.

“I do think IDP would like the caucuses to be more accessible. I think over the last several cycles accessibility to the caucuses has become a thing,” Redlawsk noted. “But the problem they face is there’s only four and a half months to go and there just are not a lot of good solutions. You can look at every option and see reasons it won’t work or won’t add to the accessibility.”

Iowa party officials hoped the satellite caucuses — an idea that got its genesis in 2016 when four such locations were approved — would satisfy a DNC directive that states that conduct caucuses instead of primaries find ways to make them more accessible.

Price said the satellite option was favored over other alternatives that included absentee ballots, proxies, a modified virtual caucus plan or asking DNC officials to grant Iowa a waiver to the accessibility rule.

“I don’t think we’re going to need a waiver,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former state party chair.

“The virtual caucus was a two-year project that was really a big, bold kind of thing,” she added. “The solutions that are available are not perfect because it is not an election. So it is an intraparty process that we work very hard to make as accessible as possible — but I think the key there is ‘as possible’ and it doesn’t disenfranchise anyone because it’s not actually an election.”

The Iowa caucuses require participants to go in person to designated venues spread across the state to choose candidates through a viability process of elimination involving debate and persuasion among the participants. The satellite process would modify a system that can be time-intensive and difficult for people who work night shifts, have other responsibilities or are challenged by disabilities, party officials said.

State Central Committee member Ken Sagar, head of the Iowa Federation of Labor, applauded the work of party officials in finding a “viable alternative” after the DNC “yanked the rug out from under us.”

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The state party was limited in the possible solutions to increase accessibility because some of the more obvious choices — like using mail-in ballots — would make the caucuses appear too much like primary elections, incurring the objection of New Hampshire — site of the first presidential primary in the nation.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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