The Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission voted in favor today of recommendations to the party’s nominating system, which will mean major changes to how the Iowa Caucus operates (its first place status in the process remains safe). The DNC as a whole still needs to vote on the rule changes, but most expect them to ratify the commission’s suggestions.
Two big alterations to the caucus process will have a major impact on Iowa: publicizing the initial raw vote total and implementing an absentee ballot option. Here’s how I think these issues will play out.
Make Initial Raw Vote Count Public
This in part comes out of frustration from Bernie Sanders supporters that the Vermont senator actually turned out the most supporters to the Iowa Caucus in 2016, but the complicated delegate math gave Hillary Clinton a narrow victory. The rules were known to all candidates going into it, but there’s still a legitimate concern that state-equivalent delegate allocation is too confusing and can penalize candidates who run up the score in certain parts of the state.
This change brings with it both advantages and complications. Let’s start with the good.
Candidates who don’t reach the 15% viability threshold in most precincts will still have their hard work recorded and publicized. Under the current system, a Democrat might start off the night with 9% support statewide, but end it with less than 1% of the delegates. That ends a lot of candidacies quickly (although many Democrats would tell you that’s part of the point of Iowa – weeding out the also-rans early). Being able to show you were a respectable fourth place with 9% of the vote could keep you going through more states, lessening the do-or-die nature of Iowa.
This change could encourage even more participation in the caucus, especially with the likely huge field of contenders for 2020. Fourth or fifth-place showings may still be meaningful.
It also adds one more interesting storyline for the media to cover. By releasing each candidate’s initial vote count, you get a much better sense of which leading candidate got most of the second-choice votes in realignment (if they started with 20% of the people but ended with 30% of the delegates, they clearly did well in that regard). That could give Democrats and the press a better sense of which presidential hopeful has a better chance of being a unifying figure down the stretch.
However, this change also presents a raft of potential problems. For starters, which result does the media use to judge the outcome? It’s not clear yet whether the raw vote total would be released at the same time as the delegate totals. This is why Iowa Democrats resisted calls to release the vote totals in 2016 – it’s confusing and weird to have two separate results.
If they were both made public on caucus night, you’d have some candidates touting one result, while others hyped a different one. Which does the media choose to use? If the press focuses on the initial raw vote, why do realignment or delegate equivalents at all?
Some still criticize the Iowa Caucus for creating delegate results that may not be perfectly proportional to how many people actually showed up for each candidate. But in fairness to Iowa, every state has this issue, even those with primaries. Many delegates to the national convention are allocated by congressional district. A candidate could win a district that has five delegates with 51% of the vote, giving them three of the five delegates, or 60% of the total. This problem isn’t unique to Iowa or caucuses, it’s a way of life in a proportional democratic system.
The difference is that the media typically reports on primaries largely on who won the statewide vote. There just needs to be an agreed-upon standard for which metric measures success in the Iowa Caucus, which could depend a lot on how this new rule gets implemented.
That’s a complicated issue that the state party will have to deal with going forward.
Absentee Ballot Option
This will be the most significant change in terms of accessibility, participation, campaign strategy and logistics. Obviously, allowing voters who can’t show up in person for whatever reason addresses one of the biggest concerns about the caucus process. The implementation of it, however, is the key aspect to watch.
I traveled through Nebraska in 2016 to report on their caucus, whose absentee ballot program was being used heavily by campaigns for the first time – I covered it in-depth here and here. Their absentee effort was a little easier to handle from a party perspective because their state has way fewer caucus locations than Iowa’s (many caucus sites were county-wide or by legislative district). The state party processed all the absentee ballots that were sent in, then distributed them in their caucus packets to each caucus site ahead of time. The absentee ballots were included in each site’s totals, counting just the same as someone who showed up in person.
For Iowa, which has around 1,700 precincts and caucus locations, the process could be much more complicated for the state party to carry out. Iowans are used to voting by absentee in the general elections (Democrats often get close to half of their totals through the early vote), but the infrastructure of that is handled by county auditors across the state, all of which have many government-funded staff at their disposal. Having the state party administer an absentee ballot program that could see anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 ballots cast in that manner would be a huge undertaking.
That means more staff time, which means more costs for the state party. They might be wise to bring in a former elections chief like former Secretary of State Michael Mauro to head up the daunting effort.
The other question is this: does it keep the spirit of the caucus alive? That’s what some folks will ask, since a major part of the caucus is getting neighbors to talk with each other about why they like their candidate. Well, frankly, the “spirit” of the caucus shouldn’t take precedent over people’s ability to participate. But the concern may also be overblown.
At one of the Nebraska caucus sites I attended in Sarpy County, 23% of the room’s vote total was from absentee ballots. At another one in Omaha, 34% of the vote was from absentees. The in-person attendees still heard the speeches, still talked with their neighbors and still realigned where needed. The absentees didn’t appear to take away from that part of the process. And surprisingly, there wasn’t any grumbling from the Sanders crowd when Clinton won the absentee vote by huge margins (her campaign ran a full absentee program in the state; Sanders’ didn’t).
However, here’s what I think a lot of people will want to avoid: the Iowa Caucus being turned into a contest of which campaign can sign up the most people to absentee vote. Each presidential campaign will find every way they can to work the system, and if they determine it’s easier to just get people to fill out ballots from home (whether they can actually attend or not), they will. What if instead of 34% of a caucus site’s votes coming from absentees, it’s 70%? I personally don’t think that will happen, but it’s still something the state party will have to keep an eye on.
Part of what might mitigate that is the crowded 2020 field. With a dozen or more contenders, a lot of candidates will be non-viable, meaning the in-person realignment will be a big deal (it’s not clear yet how an absentee would handle second and third choices). Campaigns that push their supporters who could turn out to absentee instead could hurt themselves by not having enough of their folks in the room to persuade their neighbors during realignment.
Absentees would definitely be the biggest improvement for the Iowa Caucus, but it’ll also be a very tricky system to implement.
The commission also recommended having caucus attendees write down their support for candidates. That seems to be mostly for accounting purposes, but we’ll have to wait to see what other impacts that could have.
A serious concern is just how close these changes take Iowa to becoming like a primary election and whether that would concern New Hampshire and our one-two alliance. My guess is that part of it will be okay. The real thing to watch is how the Iowa Democratic Party finds a way to carry out these recommendations (if passed) without the process getting too unwieldy or the results too confusing.
by Pat Rynard