Reprinted from the Des Moines Register Dec. 14
The Democrats’ caucuses were chaotic in 2016. So the national party is pushing for big changes, including absentee voting and publicly reporting candidates’ raw vote totals.
The question becomes: Will these changes make an even bigger mess in 2020?
On the surface, the recommendations by the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission have merit. But executing them would be tricky, and they would transform the caucus experience.
Our editorial board has advocated for more transparency in the caucus process, including releasing raw vote totals, instead of simply the delegate equivalents. Such murkiness in 2016 fueled the suspicions of Bernie Sanders supporters that the fix was in for Hillary Clinton. The commission has also called for a recount procedure, which was needed in 2016.
Releasing raw vote totals could give more voice to Iowans who support second-tier candidates. The party’s viability rules have undercounted support for candidates, such as Martin O’Malley. His supporters had to realign with another candidate in precincts where he failed to capture 15 percent of the count.
We recognize, however, that releasing both sets of numbers could create confusion, too. In a tight race, it’s possible one candidate would win the raw vote total before realignment and another would capture the most delegates in the final count. The news media and party officials must do some brainstorming on how to handle such scenarios and ensure accuracy. And the party will need to invest in technology to improve live reporting on caucus night.
A bigger issue is absentee voting. Expanding access to the caucuses is a laudable goal. But it might cripple the tradition of Iowans gathering to share their views, persuade their neighbors, discuss the party platform and elect delegates to the county conventions.
We’d love to believe that even with absentee voting, Iowans who have attended caucuses before would do so again. But if there’s an easier alternative, or if they fear bad weather or a drawn-out process, would many go?
Instead, the caucus tradition risks reverting to a largely vote-by-mail exercise. A well-funded candidate could swoop in, execute an absentee voter drive and walk away with a caucus victory.
A possible compromise was offered by the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus review committee. The group twisted in contortions to avoid the phrase “absentee voting” but suggested a form of it. Iowans could request a “non-present participation form” on “a limited basis” if they show an inability to attend because of work, family or travel commitments.
The results of these “non-present caucus participants” would be counted together in each county as if they all voted in the same precinct.
Of course, none of these options is viable if New Hampshire officials suspect our caucuses are becoming too much like a primary, which would threaten our first-in-the-nation status.
Furthermore, absentee voting and transparency won’t necessarily solve some big problems that occurred in 2016: long lines, untrained and overwhelmed volunteers, cramped precinct locations, a lack of voter registration forms and other problems.
The state party’s caucus review committee, led by former U.S. Rep. David Nagle, did address these issues. Its recommendations include allowing for pre-caucus registration to speed up the check-in process on caucus night; creating a bipartisan nonprofit organization to raise money for technology, training and results reporting; and ensuring that every precinct caucus in the state is held in an accessible and adequately sized facility.
In short, it will require thoughtful planning and an infusion of resources. Democrats have a lot of work to do to strike the proper balance between tradition and transparency.
If you’re not a Democrat, why should you care about this? First, because of the importance of the caucuses to Iowa’s political influence and economy. Second, it’s possible that if Democrats adopt absentee voting for the caucuses, the Republican Party of Iowa might feel pressure to follow.
But here’s the most important reason: Iowans are entrusted with a special role in helping select the president of the United States. We need to get it right.