Guest Columnist

No chance for meaningful discussion at Iowa's mega-caucuses

Caucus volunteers hand out presidential preference cards before the second vote at the caucus sites at City High School
Caucus volunteers hand out presidential preference cards before the second vote at the caucus sites at City High School in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Precincts 1 and 17 caucused at the school. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

It’s time to lay the Iowa caucuses to rest.

This relic from the past apparently continues to work well in small precincts, but it is very problematic when people gather in urban centers, where more and more Iowans live.

My caucus is the largest in the state and here was the scenario on Monday: We had to line up by 6:30 in order to avoid having the doors closed on us at 7:00, and we were not out until at least 9:30 — three hours of waiting in line or in the City High auditorium.

Happily, I sat next to a friendly neighbor and we passed a pleasant two hours when I fortunately found one of the remaining seats. Many people had to stand.

There were no discussions between people who supported different candidates in the auditorium filled with 700 or more people. Once it was determined which candidates were not viable (by about 8:45) there was discussion among those supporting non-viable candidates about where to put their votes, but those discussions focused on strategy, not on the substance of the alternative candidates.

I appreciated the efforts of the volunteers running the show, but I have to wonder how frustrated they were, not only because of the technical glitch Democrats suffered across Iowa, but also because the important business of selecting delegates and forming a platform committee came only when everyone was exhausted or gone.

But there are even greater problems with caucuses. They are very undemocratic. Only 10 to 15 percent of registered voters participate because of the long wait, but also because of jobs, child care, weather, physical limitations and busy lives. There is also the issue of anonymity: many people prefer not to announce their political preferences.

While I treasure having so many opportunities to hear and even meet the candidates over the year preceding the caucuses, such privilege is a function of being first-in-the-nation, not having caucuses. And, of course, there are reasons for Iowa jettisoning that status as well.

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It’s time we had a primary system that encourages much broader participation and would prevent us from being embarrassed (again) by holding onto an outdated system.

Bob Sessions lives in Iowa City.

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