Iowa Democrats would no longer make presidential picks on caucus night under a proposal that state party officials submitted to the Democratic National Committee Friday in their bid to continue holding first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Under the plan, Iowa Democrats would cast written “presidential preference cards” in the weeks leading up to the caucuses — either through the mail or at physical drop-off locations — and party officials would announce the results on caucus night.
The change would upend decades of tradition and bring Iowa much closer to a traditional presidential primary election — something DNC officials have said they prefer.
Members of the DNC’s powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee have taken aim at Iowa’s caucuses over the last several months, making clear they intend to reorient the presidential nominating calendar to give more emphasis to competitive, diverse states capable of running a smooth nominating contest. Iowa, they say, may not fit that description.
Friday was the deadline for state parties to file written applications showing how they can accommodate those priorities. Iowa was among 20 states and territories that planned to do so.
In their application, which they shared with the Des Moines Register, Iowa Democrats make the case that the state is electorally competitive and holds pockets of diversity. They also argue that they can enact major changes to the caucuses that would make them “more straightforward, accessible and professional.”
“We’re trying to paint a picture that Iowa addresses all of those points,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in an interview Friday. “There’s a reason that Iowa has been first, and there’s a reason Iowa should continue to be first.”
Committee leaders will select a subset of applicants to make in-person presentations at meetings in Washington later this month. Then the committee will meet in early August to decide which states will make up the early voting window — sealing Iowa Democrats’ fate.
‘An opportunity to reach more Iowans than ever before’
Iowa has kicked off the presidential nominating process with its precinct caucuses since 1972. Though they have adapted and changed through the years, the tradition of Iowans gathering in schools, libraries and living rooms to cast preferences for president has been a steadfast pillar of the process.
Currently, Democratic caucus attendees arrive at a central precinct location at the same time to physically stand in a corner of the room to show their support for a presidential candidate.
It’s a process that emphasizes organization and enthusiasm, but it’s also inherently exclusive. People who work late shifts, lack access to child care or transportation and people who have health or mobility problems all face barriers to participation.
For those who can attend a caucus, the process can be complicated and opaque.
The rules require presidential candidates to earn the support of at least 15% of a precinct’s caucus attendees in order to be considered viable. After a first alignment, caucusgoers who support non-viable candidates are allowed to shift their support to viable candidates during what’s known as the “realignment” period.
The party then puts the resulting numbers into a formula that estimates the percentage of “state delegate equivalents” each candidate earns.
The plan Iowa Democrats submitted to the DNC Friday would do away with nearly all of that in favor of a process they say is far simpler.
Rather than casting presidential preferences on caucus night, the state party would open a 14- to 28-day period during which registered Iowa Democrats could request a written “presidential preference card.”
Democrats would make their one choice for president on that card — there would not be any realignment period — and return the card in the mail or at established drop-off locations prior to caucus day. Party officials would tally the results and announce them on caucus night.
“The proposed changes to the caucus, namely eliminating realignment, will make caucus results an actual tangible number,” Wilburn said. “This means that press outlets would be able to report that a candidate received a specific number of expressions of support totaling a certain percentage.”
The party would still use the existing delegate formula to also announce state delegate equivalents. And it would use caucus night to conduct the business of selecting delegates to move through the convention process.
Wilburn said the changes would expand the caucus participation pool dramatically.
“This is an opportunity to reach more Iowans than ever before,” he said. “A single parent who may not have access to childcare or a worker on the third shift at John Deere will now be able to participate in our caucus process and have their voice heard.”
The proposal also calls for the state party to contract with a DNC-approved vendor, the Iowa Secretary of State or Iowa county auditors to process the preference cards and tally results in an effort to “professionalize” the party-run process.
Wilburn said the Iowa Democratic Party solicited input from Democrats across the state, and he said State Central Committee members have been briefed on the proposed changes.
Iowa Republicans will continue to hold first-in-the-nation caucuses without changes.
rianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
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