Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr, Creative Commons.

A baffled Southerner at the Iowa caucuses

I arrived at a local high school an hour early for my first caucus. As a Southerner in Iowa, I am well-accustomed to chaotic and unfair voting practices. I lived in Florida during the hanging chad debacle and spent all of my eligible voting years in North Carolina’s gerrymandered, voter-id demanding districts—until this year. While I still showed up with every form of ID from my passport to my last three water bills, the caucuses seemed different from the start. I had learned about the seemingly-noble, first-in-the-nation process in school government classes every year since fifth grade. Rather than the nerve-wracking secret ballot process, caucusing seemed to offer wholesome dialogue between various candidates’ supporters and allow you to cast support for not only your first choice candidate but also second. For those unfamiliar with a candidate’s platform or voting history, you’re not only allowed but encouraged to talk with the people next to you or pull out your phone. 

As I stood in line to sign in, advocates for various candidates waded in and out contending why the candidate on their t-shirt was the most electable. An older white man with round tortoise shell glasses and a blazer sporting stickers for every democratic candidate stood behind me. He declared his first choice was certainly Pete, but he was waiting to hear the appeals before deciding on his second choice. This seemed to exemplify the caucus process at work.  

I had learned about the seemingly-noble, first-in-the-nation process in school government classes every year since fifth grade.

In the caucus system, registered voters do not just cast their vote and leave, they attend a public meeting and stand to be counted in a section of the room devoted to their candidate. The first count is called the first alignment. If a candidate does not garner the support of at least 15 percent of the people in the room, then the people in that group can go join another group that already has 15 percent—or they can band together with another small group to make a new candidate viable. Representatives from various groups circulate the room making personalized sales pitches in attempt to persuade new supporters to their corner of the room. A recount takes place, and this is the second alignment. If a candidate ultimately receives 15 percent of the population at a given precinct, then they get some fraction of the delegates allotted to that precinct.

After we were ushered through multiple sets of double doors, several of the high school’s cheerleaders shoved a print-out in my face, detailing this year’s “New Caucus rules.” I was handed my Preference Card, the caucus analog to a ballot. If I wrote on the card before I was told, my vote would be thrown out. I took my seat in the high school auditorium. Little did I know then that rather than the dynamic, discussion-oriented process I envisioned, I wouldn’t move from my cramped seat for the next four hours. 

The 2020 rule changes marks the first time caucus procedures have been amended since Iowa became the first state in the nominating process in 1972. Historically, Iowa has only reported the number of state delegates each candidate receives. But this year, two intermediary statistics were to be reported as well: the popular vote for the first alignment and the popular vote for the final alignment. The new rules and an app were designed to streamline the ability to report these. Under the new rules, if your group has more than 15 percent of the people in the room after the first alignment you are not allowed to realign. Unlike previous years, only those who first voted for a non-viable candidate could cast their second-choice vote. Several satellite caucuses enabled a small sample of voters to caucus virtually from their phones, as a test for the feasibility of virtual caucusing to allow anyone (with a smartphone) to caucus from their living room in the future. 

When she asked if there were any questions about the new rules, there was a loud chorus of boos and get-on-with-it’s.

Finally, at 10 p.m., four hours after I arrived, our precinct captain grabbed the microphone. Holding it close to her mouth and yelling, she announced it was time to begin. When she asked if there were any questions about the new rules, there was a loud chorus of boos and get-on-with-it’s. She invited one speaker for each candidate to line up and give a two-minute pitch. A mother, a student voting for the first time, and a man with coffee breath got on stage to briefly and unconvincingly expound why their candidate was most electable. This so-called main event was over in less than 10 minutes. Wasn’t this supposed to be what made caucusing special? For the most part people had taken seats in the auditorium according to the candidate they planned to support. We started the first alignment, and as expected, the 10 minutes of speeches had inspired no one to move from the seat they held. 

After the first alignment, Bernie supporters took a haranguing approach, almost threatening the Yang supporters, asserting they will join the Bernie contingent unless they want another four years of Trump. Klobuchar supporters, dressed head-to-toe in St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia, sat in the theatre’s balcony chanting “Make Amy viable,” rather than walking downstairs to make their case to the groups below. Meanwhile, recycled plastic water jugs were passed around to collect donations. The Iowa Democratic party had to pay rent to each of the more than 1,600 facilities where caucusing was hosted.

Inequality is inherent to the caucus process. Low-income Iowans face many barriers to voting. There is no absentee option. To be counted, you must be present, in-person on the designated night by 7 p.m. and be able to stay for an undetermined number of hours. Those who work a 9-to-5, with the disposable income to hire a babysitter or without children are privileged. People who work second or third shifts in the meat processing plants across Iowa, people who cannot stand for long periods of time, and many more are left unable to participate. In my seat, I was surrounded by white people, most of them over 50. Iowa is whiter and older than most other states, but my county is one of the most diverse in that state. Those disenfranchised are disproportionately nonwhite. 

The turnout for this year’s caucus did not meet that of 2008, but given the extra burdens the caucus process provides, this is not necessarily a boon for “poor turnout.” Iowa is not representative of the rest of the states. Iowa’s Latinx voters have a poverty rate twice the state average, and they account for a disproportionate number of second and third shift workers. This was the first year in caucus history that 12 caucus sites held proceedings in both English and Spanish, but the language barrier is just one of many. For starters, there was mixed information about whether attending these satellite locations required advanced registration, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign was the only one to send precinct captains to these locations and ensure that pitch-givers could speak Spanish. 

Around midnight, I left tired with a pounding headache wishing I had filed an absentee ballot in North Carolina instead.

  • About

    Tracee Saunders is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Iowa, raised in Western North Carolina. Her research focuses on how state and local political institutions perpetuate social inequities. Saunders’ research on contraception access has been featured by the Washington Post, The Economist, and The Gender Policy Report. Follow her on Twitter @TraceeMSaunders.