To say that the Iowa caucuses received the major media attention everyone thought it would get is a major understatement. Being the first primary state is one thing, but being an unmitigated disaster while everyone is watching? Now that takes skill. I don’t know whether I am impressed or appalled with how this primary was handled, especially considering that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is on thin ice with a large sect of Democrats for their interference in the 2016 presidential primaries. Despite the issues we saw this year, I still like the caucus system itself and would like to explain my reasons why.
Allow me to preface this article by saying that I don’t think the DNC is trying to actively sway primary elections in the favor of someone like Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg in order to prevent the momentum of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign. I don’t think the rigging of primaries, or the like is happening, because I don’t see evidence for it, and I think that would be an inconceivably stupid move on the part of the DNC considering the scrutiny they are under due to the 2016 primary season. With that out of the way, allow me to share my feelings on caucuses.
Caucuses are, in my opinion, really cool and truly spirited forms of democracy. Caucuses, although called a primary, because they are an election to select a party nominee, differ from ballot primaries in that people do not cast ballots to select their choice for the party nominee — they “align” with them. To explain, take Louisiana’s primary, for example (which is being held on April 4th, so mark your calendars). The way we do primaries is by going to a voting booth and secretly casting a ballot. The only person who knows how you voted is you. This is not the case in a caucus.
Groups of voters in Iowa were previously assigned to a building in their precincts that had a large room to fit everyone in. When the time came to vote on a nominee, everyone physically moved to the side of the room that was designated for that candidate. There is no secret balloting; everyone sees who your choice is, and you see theirs.
Where this gets interesting though, is when “viability” comes into play. See, there is a certain threshold that candidates must meet in order to be considered “viable,” and in this case it is 15%; meaning, if at least 15% of the room is not supporting the candidate, then that candidate is considered “unviable” and the supporters would have to move to their second choice. This second alignment allows all of the viable campaigns to attempt to sway the dispersed and wandering voters to their side. They make pitches, ask questions, answer questions, explain themselves and anything they can that might persuade a few to their side. After the second alignment, the people in each campaign group are counted. The totals from the second alignment are used to calculate the number of delegates each candidate will get when it comes time for the party convention.
What I find so great about this system is that it allows individuals to discuss with the people around them — who are more likely than not, friends and family — who is best to serve them. It forces direct face-to-face encounters with the people your political decision will affect.
Caucuses aren’t all rosy, however. It takes about an hour to get people set up and registered, organized, counted, reorganized and recounted before vote totals can be sent in, whereas with ballots you sign in, vote and leave. Also, as much as I love the open-faced democracy that happens during a caucus, some people are understandably uncomfortable with showing off to all of their neighbors who they are voting for. It’s sad, but not unheard of to lose friends over politics.
The disaster that was the 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucus was shocking, irritating and frustrating, so it is understandable why some people are aiming such feelings at the caucus system itself. But be clear, the obstacles faced last Monday were not obstacles caused by the caucus itself; rather, they were issues due to a halfwitted desire to use rushed and unnecessary technology to “improve” the electoral system, coupled with an understaffed and inadequate phone line back up. When the app that was to be used to record candidate votes and delegate counts failed, the 1,600 precincts had to rely on a twelve-manned phone line to report their results. How incredibly short-sighted.
I sincerely hope that talk of abandoning the Iowa caucus tamps down because I would enjoy a caucus in many states, including Louisiana. The person you choose for office isn’t your personal representative, they serve you, your neighbor, your friends, your family, your spouse, your children, your enemies, your foes and just about everyone else in your personal and extended circle. Caucuses dip down to the roots of democracy, a Greek-derived word literally meaning a “rule of the people,” by forcing you to confront others touched by your decision. Caucuses provide for a unique and deeply rooted form of democracy that we really don’t experience at all, and I think that should change.