The following editorial appeared in the Des Moines Register on Sept. 5:
Some Americans see the Iowa caucuses as the cockroaches of the presidential nominating season: Hardly anyone likes them but they are extremely hard to kill.
There’s a bit of truth to that, despite my well-known affection for the caucuses. They can be annoying, especially to those who don’t understand them. But far from being undesirable pests, the caucuses perform a valuable function not only to our state but to the country. There’s a kind of nobility in their persistence, despite the best efforts of many powerful people to crush them into the dust.
Usually, the threat comes from other states, which perennially try to push their way into the early rounds of voting. They rely on the slippery notion that their votes “won’t matter” if held later in the year. (Never mind that in 2016, it took until June for Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination. All but seven states and the District of Columbia had voted by then.) Iowa has always dodged these predictable sorties by simply moving the caucuses as early as necessary to stay first in line.
This time, it’s the Democratic National Committee that has attempted to snare the caucuses with a Catch-22 rules process. The DNC required Iowa, and other caucus states, to come up with an absentee “voting” process. The goal — and it is a worthy goal — was to expand participation and prevent the disenfranchisement of people who might be prevented from participating by their jobs, mobility issues, overseas military service or other conflicts.
Absentee voting has long posed a bugaboo for the Iowa caucuses that does not exist for other caucus states. That’s partly because in order to maintain its first-in-the-nation status, Iowa must avoid trespassing on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary election. Any new process that looks too much like a primary election in the view of New Hampshire’s secretary of state will push the two states into a showdown. Nevertheless, Iowa Democrats made a good-faith effort to create a way to expand participation while maintaining the nature of the caucuses.
The problem, as you may have read, is that the DNC has said it would reject Iowa’s plan for “virtual” telephonic caucus meetings. The committee issued a vague security concern about a potential vendor and apparently decided if that not-even-hired vendor couldn’t conduct a secure telephonic process, no one could. It sounds like a flimsy excuse. People manage to conduct their banking over the phone; a telephonic caucus should not pose any greater risk. Furthermore, the committee offered no such objection to Iowa’s pilot project in 2016 to conduct a telephonic caucus for overseas military personnel.
The DNC’s concerns seem to arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of caucuses. Caucuses are NOT elections and they should not be held to the same standards for participation or even security as we would expect for an election. The only people getting elected at a caucus are delegates to a series of conventions over a period of months — plenty of time to catch and disqualify any cheaters. Caucuses do not produce an irreversible result that might put the wrong person in office.
Iowa and all states should do everything possible to eliminate barriers for participation in the political process. Even so, caucuses are not intended to be convenient. In fact, caucuses should be inconvenient. The entire process works the way it does because it forces voters to give up most of an evening in the middle of winter. Voters who are willing to make that much of a sacrifice for participation are also going to be willing to educate themselves about the issues and the candidates. Many of them are going to be willing to donate money or time to help get that candidate elected. It’s why party-building is considered an even more important goal of caucuses than nominating candidates.
Candidates who succeed in the Iowa caucuses are not always the establishment favorites. They’re not always the most famous or the ones who can buy the most advertising. The nature of the caucuses means voters are likely to be swayed more by a candidate’s ideas and communication skills than by money. That doesn’t happen in most other states. The fact that candidates must meet voters and campaign on their ideas in Iowa gives the rest of the country a better opportunity to take their measure, too.
Iowa has always had to fight for the caucuses and that would include defying the DNC, if necessary. And while the national party may not feel it owes Iowa anything, members would surely think twice about yanking the rug out from under candidates who have invested heavily here. Maybe that’s why the DNC has already indicated it would grant Iowa a waiver from the absentee rule, if requested. But that just pushes the issue to 2024. The DNC should reconsider its blanket prohibition on telephone caucuses or rethink its requirement for an absentee caucus process.
The Iowa caucuses are hard to kill, but not impossible. What all of us need to consider is that if the powers-that-be stomp out the caucuses, they will also squash another part of the American dream that says “anyone can grow up to be president.”