Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: The Underside of the Iowa Caucuses (One of Them, Anyway)

Posted at 1:00 pm, December 31st, 2011
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

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.

One Response to “The Underside of the Iowa Caucuses (One of Them, Anyway)”

  1. Amy Charles says:

    You’re right, and when I moved to Iowa 19 years ago, I was outraged by the loss of my primary vote, my secret ballot, and the whole too-bad-for-you-Sally business for people who can’t make the caucus.

    However, I find that the reality’s not quite that bleak. Around here, anyway, people offer to watch children on caucus night; my kid’s daycare guy stays open late. Bosses do let people out, though I’m aware not all employees are in a position to ask. Rides are available. If you’re bedridden or a caregiver to someone with a serious condition, then it’s true you’ll lose your primary vote. Not much evening respite care’s available.

    That said, as you point out, most people don’t show up even when they can. Would turnout be higher if remote or absentee caucusing were available? Maybe. I bet it wouldn’t be by much, though.

    On the whole I’ll take the trade. I’ve had better access to candidates than I had as a Congressional staffer in my home state, and the Dem caucuses in particular strike me as remarkably sensible, designed to weed out the unelectable and with consequences as far as delegates go. People who’re so inclined do indeed take the civic duty seriously.

    In an unpleasant political atmosphere, or an unpleasant small town, I don’t know that I’d support the preference-group mode that disallows secret balloting. Beyond that, though, I’ll take it. I’d say it also does a fairly good job of ensuring that caucusing’s carried out by people who take a serious interest. You needn’t be male, white, or a property-holder, but you must be willing to do your homework and commit some time.

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