Staff Columnist

What it means to participate in the Iowa caucuses

University of Iowa students listen to directions at a Democratic Party caucus at the Field House on the University of Io
University of Iowa students listen to directions at a Democratic Party caucus at the Field House on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

In 2016, I caucused in precinct 24 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 2016, only 15.7 percent of Iowa voters participated in the caucuses so it’s safe to say most of you haven’t participated. The caucuses are the one night a year when Iowans are allowed to air their political grievances, or what people in the East Coast call “talking to each other.”

Let me explain.

In 2008 and 2012, I caucused in the Republican caucuses. I went so I could see what was happening and throw a couple of Ron Paul votes just to ensure my participation didn’t really matter. I changed my party affiliation immediately after. The Republican caucuses are done by secret ballot, which is way less fun, much like the GOP.

The caucuses are the one night a year when Iowans are allowed to air their political grievances, or what people in the East Coast call “talking to each other.”

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For the Democrats, the idea is that you gather into groups for your first choice candidate. You count yourselves. Then, you probably count yourselves again, just to be sure. Candidates without enough people supporting them aren’t viable. So they must realign.

Realignment is the process where people from one group go convince other people from another group to join them. They talk. They have a dialogue. And sometimes, they just shout. In 2016, the Martin O’Malley group was immediately cannibalized by the Clinton supporters, leaving Sanders and Clinton supporters facing off and of course, the undecideds.

I stood in the Clinton group and recall being accosted by a Bernie supporter named Corey, who shouted at me that Clinton was corrupt and that I was voting with my vagina. I don’t think Corey knew how women’s bodies actually worked, because even though I’m a woman I still vote by filling out a ballot with my hands, but he persisted, shouting at me, until, in a moment of fear, I stuck out my hand and told him my name.

“I’m caucusing here, that means I’m your neighbor,” I said. He stopped yelling.

The thing Iowans love about the caucuses are that they are truly a mess. An undulating, barely organized, hard to count, mass of humanity, coming together and drifting apart until a final pattern is made. And it’s confusing as hell. That’s what it means to caucus as a Democrat. You vote with the ambulatory flesh sack of your body. But what of the bodies who can’t be there? People with disabilities, illnesses, anyone with a night job, or children. How are their votes and voices counted? The answer is that they simply aren’t counted. You never hear them.

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And the next day, the world awakes thinking that Iowa has thought or voted in one way, when really it was only the 15.7 percent of Iowans who were able to come.

This year, the DNC has changed the rules allowing satellite caucuses and a whole host of new tweaks to the system that will make a complicated process even more complicated. A Rube Goldbergian enterprise of ropes and pulleys and sweaty masses of humanity that will still exclude and will still break down, until something rises up or something else gives.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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