For 40-plus years, Iowa has been pulling the wool over the eyes of the free world every four years. It is time our state’s political leaders put aside their love of the national spotlight and retire the much-ballyhooed Iowa caucuses – or overhaul the process to address the obvious flaws that exist with the event. I say that, not because some people think Iowa is the wrong location for the first stop in the process of choosing the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ nominees for president.
STRAY THOUGHTSRandy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own. Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
It’s not because we are perceived by some as too white or too rural or too small. It’s not because some think Iowa is not representative of the rest of the United States.
The problem with the caucuses is simple: These gatherings every four years – in approximately 1,600 precincts from Ackley to Zwingle – are not truly representative of Iowans’ thinking on the presidential candidates because of the very nature of the caucuses themselves.
With a traditional primary election, if you are unable to go to the polls on Election Day, you can obtain an absentee ballot and vote ahead of time. Casting your ballot requires about the same amount of time as it takes for your cup of coffee to cool enough to drink. But with the caucuses, there is no opportunity to cast an absentee ballot. If you cannot attend, you cannot participate. And if you do participate in the Democrat’ caucuses, you need to be prepared to spend the better part of an evening packed like sardines into a church hall or school lunchroom – maybe with enough seats for everyone, or maybe not.
At the Democrats’ caucuses, you will wait a seemingly interminable length of time with your arm stuck in the air while your outstretched “vote” is counted. You will wait again while precinct leaders tabulate those votes and figure out whether your candidate has the support of at least 15 percent of the participants in your caucus. If your candidate fails to attract that minimum level of support, you can join with another candidate and go through another round of counting hands. Or, if you stick with your original choice and your candidate still fails to achieve 15 percent support, your candidate comes away with no delegates.
If you attend a Republican caucus, the preference ballots you and your neighbors cast are not binding on how delegates are apportioned for the county, district and state conventions. The absence of any opportunity to vote early in the caucuses is the deal-breaker, as far as I’m concerned, with trying to pass Iowa off as an accurate barometer of our state’s thinking on who should be president.
This barometer is far from accurate if a sizable percentage of Iowa Democrats or Iowa Republicans are, as a practical matter, excluded from the process. My friend Floyd, who is in his 80s, is an insatiable consumer of news. He likes nothing better than to debate political issues. But he and his wife stayed away from the caucuses four years ago because of the bitter cold that night and because they now avoid driving after dark because of their age.
Floyd’s choice for president is one that should be included if Iowa’s caucuses were truly representative. But there are tens of thousands of other Floyds out there around Iowa who cannot participate in the caucuses and do not get the opportunity to have their presidential preference counted. Some spend the winter in warmer regions. Others live in care centers and are not able to leave. Some are in hospitals. There are people who work the night shift and can’t get off. There are over-the-road truckers and police officers and firefighters. Some are staffing Iowa’s hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants at night. Or they may be parents with young children at home and cannot afford a babysitter, or they may be tied to their homes caring for disabled loved ones.
I certainly understand why Iowa leaders bask in the national spotlight the caucuses shine on our state every four years. Who doesn’t enjoy showing our state to the men and women who want to lead our nation and to television viewers across the nation? The gatherings in small-town cafes and community halls provide video affirmation that Iowans take our civic duty seriously. We listen to the candidates. We quiz them on all manner of programs, policies and problems. We study their position papers.
But the real-life limitations on who can caucus and who cannot creates a gaping hole that undermines the credibility the Iowa results should receive. Until every registered voter can participate, regardless of their health or their work schedule, the caucus results are a sham, and the caucuses do not deserve the attention they receive in the presidential selection process. Change in Iowa’s caucus process is long overdue.