I am not a native Iowan and for various (legitimate) reasons, I was unable to participate in a caucus until the 2016 nomination process. And while 2016 did teach me that caucuses are, in fact, the dumbest way to conduct a vote in the 21st Century, I still left feeling like my voice was heard by the time the evening was over.
That is NOT the case with the midterm caucuses.
First, I should clarify that I know that participating in the democratic process is not a hobby per se. However, it is the way I chose to spend my free time on Monday night and this blog is really about trying new things so I’m going to say it qualifies. (My corner of the internet, my rules.)
Given the current state of U.S. politics, our household has decided to take a more active role in the democratic process. No longer will we ignore school board and city council elections and since I am tired of the Democrats putting up sickly nominees to contest incumbent Republican governors in a very purple state, I figured I would participate in the midterm caucuses on behalf of the gubernatorial candidate of my choice. Easy peasy, right?
Oh hell, no.
The concept of caucuses is firmly rooted in a society without quick, easy communication options. (I was originally going to say without digital communication, but caucuses definitely pre-date telephones and probably railroads too. I’m pretty sure the pony express is more modern.) In a rural farming state it was probably difficult to get to your local polling place prior to paved roads and horseless carriages so it made sense that you would spend an evening at a neighbors house, discuss which candidate had a majority of the support (via a show of hands) and then appoint 1 or 2 people from your neighborhood to act as delegates so not all of you would have to venture hours to the big city in what were undoubtedly uncomfortable conditions.
This concept does not translate well to a city of 70,000+, many of whom have jobs and young families and things to do in the evening that don’t include sitting in a high school gymnasium with a bunch of local retirees.
As far as I can tell the pros of hosting a caucus are:
- Gossiping with your neighbors.
The cons are:
- Bad weather affects turnout. (It’s Iowa. In February.)
- Required attendance makes voting absentee impossible.
- Disenfranchisment of young voters/students.
- Disenfranchisment of travelers.
- Disenfranchisment of people who work non-traditional hours.
- Disenfranchisment of young parents.
- Disenfranchisment of the sick/elderly.
- A complicated and unintuitive process that the inexperienced don’t understand.
- Takes an unnecessarily long time.
- The side with the most chairs will probably win.
First, there is no reason for us to continue having a caucus except that the people most likely to advocate for changing the system to a primary can’t attend the one event they’d need to to actually enact said change. And the sad part is most of those young people they’re disenfranchising are statistically likely to be Democratic voters.
Second, who in the hell decided that a process reliant entirely on good weather should be scheduled to occur in February in Iowa?? Yesterday, we had a blizzard. An honest-to-goodness blizzard with 50 car pile-ups on the interstate, DOT warnings not to travel, and 8+ inches of snow on the road (which was not plowed until the next morning). The caucuses were not postponed.
Third, turns out the midterm caucuses aren’t even about the candidates; they’re about the process of caucusing (because nothing says fun like listening to a volunteer precinct chair attempt to explain government procedure after attending a single training session). Now last night, Adam and I went to caucus for the guy we wanted most to be our gubernatorial candidate. No one even mentioned his name. Instead, we elected the 7 people who would represent our precinct at the county, district, and state conventions. (That’s right, 3 conventions to decide a nominee for an election in a state with more pigs than people.) What this means is that the voices of the 2200 people in my precinct will be represented by a mere 7 delegates and those delegates don’t even have to tell us which candidates they’ll be voting for!
So basically the only way to make my vote heard is to spend 2 hours on a sub-zero Monday night listening to my neighbors muddle their way through an antiquated and overly-complicated process, only to have to volunteer to give up 3+ Saturdays over the course of the spring to drive around the state of Iowa and do this all over again. Now doesn’t that sound like a process that would encourage involvement from younger generations?
You can bet your ass I volunteered.
Just a few other things…
- When we showed up for the presidential caucuses in 2016 it was clear that no one knew how a caucus actually worked, but I still got to vote for the candidate of my choice and 500+ people showed up which was encouraging. At the midterm caucuses for the same precinct, 37 people showed up. THIRTY SEVEN. Additionally, the people in charge were really happy with the turnout. This kind of attitude is how you lose elections.
- Not a single person I know was informed about the caucus date or location and I don’t exactly work with uninformed people. The democratic party didn’t even attempt to notify their voters that a caucus was happening and only 1 of the 8 democratic gubernatorial candidates even bothered to contact either me or Adam. The only reason I knew about it is because I made a conscious choice to remember to look the date up online.
- Even if you did manage to look up and remember the date, find your caucus location (different than the last one), and drive safely through a blizzard, good luck finding the sign-in table. Adam and I don’t have children and have never been inside the local high school. When I showed up at the caucus location, there was not a single sign in the parking lot, on the door, or in any of the hallways telling me I was in the right place. Thank goodness for kind (and politically knowledgeable) janitors.
- NO ONE KNOWS HOW A CAUCUS WORKS! From the lady signing us in who didn’t even tell us which room to go to, to the precinct chair who couldn’t keep track of what was going on at any point during the evening, it was like watching a crash course in how to alienate your voting base. Adam and I had never attended a midterm caucus before and it’s only because I have no shame in yelling out my questions that we learned what was going on. Adam fully admitted that if I hadn’t been there, he would have left within the first 10 minutes. And Adam is exactly the kind of voter that democrats (and quite frankly republicans) need to retain in order to have a future in a swing state. He’s educated but generally disenchanted by the sluggish pace of the democratic process. He’s skeptical of those that blindly follow political allegiances (as we all should be) and comes from a rural area of the state where he has a chance to influence other uncommitted and uninformed voters. And he’s already talking about not wanting to go back in 2 years.
Ultimately, I’d rather not have to do that ever again. But I also know that the only way to ensure change is to learn to navigate the process so it can be used as a vehicle to enact the very change that would eliminate this system. So now I’m an alternate delegate for the 3 conventions and a precinct representative on the Democratic platform committee because if only 7 people from my precinct get to cast votes for a candidate, I’m damn-well going to be one of them.
And maybe in 25-1000 years, Iowa will get over its vain first-in-the-nation obsession and finally switch to an inclusive and accessible primary election system.