Mark Shields and David Brooks agreed the other evening on the PBS Newshour that the country was indebted to well-educated Iowans for their splendid show of citizenship in conscientiously attending campaign events and subjecting candidates to informed questioning. Shields and Brooks didn’t happen to wonder where these wonderful, public spirited, Iowans are when the caucuses actually are conducted.
In the past, the vast majority of registered voters managed to absent themselves from their precinct caucuses. It’s not unusual for eight out of 10 registered party members to be no-shows on caucus night.
I don’t fault them. Precinct caucuses are an obstacle course for voters. Unlike presidential primaries, such as the upcoming one in New Hampshire, where polls are open all day and citizens can drop in to vote at their convenience, caucuses are conducted for just a few hours and you must be present at a particular time to cast a presidential preference ballot. You can’t make it to a caucus site? Too bad; no absentee voting allowed.
Why not make voting more convenient at Iowa’s caucuses? Party bigwigs dare not. If they did, they could be accused of staging an event too similar to a primary and thereby endanger the state’s “first-in-the nation” status. Iowa is allowed by the powers that be to beat out New Hampshire in the presidential preference sweepstakes because it argued successfully that it’s a non-primary state. Being first is regarded by Iowa politicians as precious beyond imagining. The perverse consequence of the obsession over being first is that Iowa voters are saddled with the caucus system and seriously disadvantaged by it.
The spotlight on Iowa’s caucuses every four years seldom includes attention to the downside for voters by caucuses as they are conducted in Iowa. Witness the unstinting praise for Iowans by Shields and Brooks. Instead of focusing on civic-minded Iowans, the press ought to be paying attention to the unfair system under which they labor.