I hate the Iowa Caucuses.
To begin with, they’re an inherently exclusionary process in an undeniably white state. If you’re not able to stand up in a hot gym or church basement for at least two hours in the evening your opinion doesn’t matter in the Iowa Democratic Party’s presidential selection process. Parents, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and shift workers — people who make up the core of the Democratic Party’s base — are disenfranchised. Instead, historically, a small group of primarily white people who don’t have better things to do on a Monday night end up shaping the primary race for our entire country.
I also hate them for another, very simple reason: I live in Iowa, and they are bad for Iowans. They deplete the organizing resources of a state already struggling to address some profound issues. So trust me when I say that I have long wanted the Iowa Caucuses to die, though not like this.
While it’s pretty much universally agreed that the 2020 Iowa caucuses were a disaster, they didn’t feel that way in my precinct. Last night was actually my best experience caucusing in Iowa. In 2016, my precinct was made up of all the fraternities at my college and elderly women, a fraught mix at best given the candidates that year. Realignment turned into a screaming match, and no one left feeling good about living next to the people on the other side.
I came into this year expecting the worst, but in the end, over 500 people showed up to caucus at my Cedar Rapids precinct — an increase of more than 150 people over 2016. All of the major campaigns were well organized and friendly, and the new presidential preference cards that were used to create a paper trail made counting people a much simpler process. I had a great time talking with my neighbors and learning what issues were important enough for them to show up and stand in a loud, crowded middle school gym.
I’ve spent months persuading people that even though I think the caucuses are a bad system, it matters that we participate.
After the second alignment, only Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg were viable, with Sanders narrowly beating Warren to win. (Joe Biden wasn’t even close to being viable.) Sanders got three delegates; Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar each got two. I stayed until the end to become a delegate to the county convention for Warren and congratulate the other campaigns, and I was still surprised by how early we finished. A few of my friends in other cities throughout the state had challenging precincts with confusion about new rules, but largely things seemed to go way better than they did in 2016.
The volunteers running the caucuses did their jobs well in many of the more than 1,600 precincts. Some of them went above and beyond to make their caucuses run smoothly. In Cedar Rapids 34, precinct chair Lindsey Ellickson spent her own money to set up a kids’ area, and her preparation and poise earned high praise from many people in her precinct. There were a number of first-time caucus goers from underrepresented groups.
Me: Raise your hand if this is your first time caucusing.— Ariel (@arieljrubin) February 4, 2020
141 Nepali-, Iraqi-, Vietnamese-, Somali-, Indian-, Bhutanese-, and Iranian-Americans at the Al Najah Cultural Center at the #IACaucus: pic.twitter.com/PBvtizSOFg
Look at this historical moment: I’m at the Muslim Community Organization where over 200 are here and 99% are for Bernie. This Caucus has 9 delegates available. This is the beginning of winning this revolution. I’m amazed and my heart is so warm! #IowaCaucus#CaucusForBerniepic.twitter.com/He3sEiKTKT— Ja'Mal Green (@JaymalGreen) February 4, 2020
Afterward we finished caucusing, my roommate, a proud Bernie Sanders supporter, and I went home to drink cheap booze and watch the results roll in.
Except they didn’t.
After the extremely close and contentious caucuses in 2016, the Iowa Democratic Party took major steps to address accessibility and transparency concerns. Satellite caucuses were held, including several bilingual ones, and the party promised to release not only the delegate counts for each candidate, but also the raw numbers for first and second alignment. Additionally, the new presidential preference cards would create a paper trail to verify the results.
These changes were supposed to make things better. Instead, they were the final crack in an already broken system.
While I think the hate directed toward the Iowa caucuses is pretty well deserved, I do think that the panic was largely created as a result of our 24/7 news cycle, which sucks shit. As my friend Ben Kaplan said, “The press are not calling this a debacle because there are widespread reports of poorly run caucuses, or of inaccurate delegate or alignment counts; they're calling it a debacle because anchors had to fill dead air.”
Like many Iowans, I’ve been preparing for the caucuses for months. I attended training sessions, practiced caucus math, knocked doors, and registered new voters. I helped people switch their party from Republican to Democrat to participate. I convinced several of my friends who had never caucused before that it was important to show up and be counted. I’ve spent months persuading people that even though I think the caucuses are a bad system, it matters that we participate. After what happened, I feel like I’ve betrayed the trust these people put in me, and I’m deeply worried about keeping them engaged in our political process come November.
Iowa looks like a mess, and we now have to deal with a bunch of conspiracy theories destroying the credibility of the caucus results instead of working to make our process more inclusive and accessible. Even if the Iowa Democratic Party had the competence to pull off a statewide conspiracy (they don’t), there are thousands of witnesses who all know what the results in their neighborhoods are. You can’t cheat a caucus. But the complete lack of transparency from Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price about when we’ll know full results has convinced many people that you can, undermining our ability to encourage people to feel confident participating in future elections.
There are very few states left that hold caucuses. After 2016, Minnesota switched their presidential nominating process from a caucus to a primary, and I can only imagine how relieved they feel about their choice today. We need to accept our fuck up and do the same.