Government

Iowa Democrats retain first-in-the-nation caucuses, but must increase transparency

Tristan Hines of Cedar Rapids holds up a sign for precinct 17 before the start of the Democrats' precinct caucuses at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tristan Hines of Cedar Rapids holds up a sign for precinct 17 before the start of the Democrats' precinct caucuses at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa Democrats will retain their first-in-the-nation presidential precinct caucuses in 2020, but will have to make changes to increase accessibility and participation.

The changes also would develop a procedure for recounts, if they are requested.

Meeting on Saturday in Chicago, the Democratic National Committee approved reforms to the presidential nominating process, including limiting the clout of the so-called superdelegates who get a seat in their state delegations because of party status.

The superdelegates no longer will vote in the first round of balloting for the presidential nominee at the party’s national convention.

The DNC recommended that states with caucuses increase accessibility by offering absentee voting to party members who cannot attend in person and implement ways to track ballots to make the results more transparent.

The rules changes and recommendations were the result of work by the DNC-appointed Unity Reform Commission, including DNC member Jan Bauer of Story County. The changes and recommendations come after questions were raised about the nominating process in both primary and caucus states as well as the influence of unelected superdelegates.

The changes were supported by the Iowa delegation — state Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price and Vice Chairwoman Andrea Phillips, DNC members Scott Brennan and Sandy Opstvedt, and Iowa at-large delegate Bauer, Price said. He added that the party now has about six months to propose changes.

“We don’t know what the changes will look like,” Price said. “The DNC gave us goals but didn’t prescribe solutions. That’s what he wanted.”

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“This way we will be able to preserve the spirit of the Iowa caucuses,” he said. “We never held the caucuses out as a primary. They are neighborhood meetings. That’s what makes out process unique and allows candidates to come in and have that retail campaign experience.”

The fact the DNC offered recommendations rather that specific changes demonstrate faith in Iowa Democrats, Price said.

“When they’ve come to us in the past, we’ve come up with solutions,” he said. For example, ahead of the 2016 caucuses, the party created a telecaucus for military personnel and satellite caucuses for shift workers who couldn’t attend in person.

Price said he expects that the State Central Committee, which governs the Iowa party, will have listening posts across the state to gather information before approving proposed rules to submit to the DNC.

It’s too soon to know whether the changes will include the use of paper ballots as Republicans use at their caucuses, Price said.

The changes also could alter the ways candidates’ support is measured and delegates are awarded. Democratic caucus results do not reflect an actual vote count. They are what the party calls “state delegate equivalents.” Delegate equivalents represent the estimated number of state convention delegates that a candidate will have, based on caucus results.

Critics say the use of delegate equivalents rather than actual votes or a head count is confusing and not transparent.

At Iowa Democratic caucuses, participants are sorted into candidate preference groups. A candidate must have at least 15 percent of the caucusgoers present to be considered viable. People in a nonviable preference group can join another candidate’s supporters or form an uncommitted preference group.

Delegate equivalents then are assigned based on a head count of each preference group.

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In 2016, the Democratic caucuses ended in a virtual tie. Clinton won 49.9 delegate equivalents and Sanders got 49.6. That broke down to 23 state convention delegates for her and 21 for him.

The next caucuses tentatively are scheduled Feb. 3, 2020, with the New Hampshire primary to follow Feb. 11.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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