Staff Columnist

Iowa can't give up on caucus accessibility

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (left) and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price appear Firday, Aug. 30, 2019,  at a news conference in Des Moines. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa (left) and Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price appear Firday, Aug. 30, 2019, at a news conference in Des Moines. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

Maybe we should turn Iowa’s “virtual caucus” conundrum over to some elementary school kids.

They’d likely know, instinctively, that making the caucus process accessible to all who want to participate is the right thing to do. Duh.

They’d also surely conclude that New Hampshire really shouldn’t be the boss of us.

In case you missed it, The Democratic National Committee has rejected Iowa Democrats’ plan to hold virtual caucuses to accommodate Iowans who, due to disabilities, work schedules, etc., can’t participate in the actual caucuses on Feb. 3. State leaders were seeking to comply with a DNC directive.

But the DNC concluded Iowa’s virtual system is a cybersecurity risk. The first-in-the-nation 2020 caucuses will go on, according to party officials, but likely under traditional rules requiring voters to show up on caucus night.

Beyond 2020? If great minds don’t solve the accessibility problem, Iowa Democrats could very well lose their lofty perch at the presidential starting line. Cue the wailing, gnashing and caucus-bashing.

“Instead of trying to engineer a way around the fact that caucuses are awful ways to select presidential candidates, Iowa and every other caucus state should simply switch to holding primary votes,” the Washington Post opined, under a headline calling caucuses “outdated and irrational.”

Couldn’t Iowans come up with a system of paper absentee caucus ballots that would be immune from hacking? What about a primary?

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Any big changes would present challenges. We’d have to change Iowa law to hold a primary, for example. But the biggest barrier to change is the Granite State.

New Hampshire state law requires it to hold the first primary. Its longtime secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has authority to move his state’s primary date if he feels its status is threatened. Of course, an Iowa primary would constitute a clear threat. But even an absentee balloting system also could trigger a New Hampshire red alert.

How ridiculous is it that one state can prevent another state from making its caucus process more accessible to its citizens? Very. So the “Live Free or Die” state would really use its veto to keep disabled Iowans from participating in a democratic process? Maybe, maybe not.

If preserving Iowa’s status is the main goal, Iowa Democrats’ best shot is adopting a hybrid system that preserves caucus night quirkiness along with an absentee balloting system that expands access.

If accessibility is the main goal, switch to a primary and risk the loss of our first-in-the-nation-ness. Blasphemy, I know.

New Hampshire should grit its teeth and accept a hybrid solution as a reasonable compromise. It should see any calendar tumult as bad news. Folks might wonder why New Hampshire is so sacred.

Iowa Republicans face no such concerns over accessibility. So Democrats’ could lose their leadoff caucuses while Republican caucuses remain first. In terms of fundraising, party-building and national clout, this is a doomsday scenario for Iowa Democrats.

But this should be an all-hands-on deck moment. The caucuses are at risk. And, more importantly, too many Iowans are being denied the ability to participate. It’s an issue we can no longer ignore. Duh.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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