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The 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus (Poweshiek County Grinnell Precinct 7 Ward 2) (#1008)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous

Disclaimer: I began this musing before I heard about the technology issues. It’s sad; the articles I saw about the satellite sites showed a very positive spin on the process; I think they could have generated more support for them. On the other hand, the process worked, just more slowly than some might have wished. The paper ballots permitted a clear way to document votes.

The Iowa Democratic Caucuses. Everyone knows about them. People clearly have mixed feelings. Why should a white, mostly rural, state get such power? Is the caucus process fair, given that it requires a time commitment that many people lack? On the other hand, as Youngest says, There’s something to be said about how nice it is to hear what real people have to say, and not just the reporters and polls. You see conversations and community at the caucuses. You get to talk to people. You can become a delegate, even if you aren’t currently part of the party’s power structure. And many voting processes are also unfair; people get told they can’t vote, spend hours in line, have their ballots rejected, fight with Chad, fall prey to systems with no paper backups.

My biggest worry is that one of the claimed strengths of the caucuses may, in fact, be a significant problem. As proponents seem to suggest, Iowa is small enough that citizens can meet and chat with significant numbers of candidates, or so that candidates can meet and chat with a significant number of voters, or something like that. It sounds good, in theory. And people take those responsibilities seriously. So what’s wrong? I’ve seen claims that Americans elect people, not policies. If you make your decisions based on your interactions with the candidates, do you end up focusing on the personality? I’m not sure.

I will admit that I appreciate that candidates come to Grinnell and nearby times, which means that my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and students get to meet many of them [1]. It’s an interesting experience, to say the least. Is it fair that it happens to us in Iowa? I’m not sure. But it may beat candidates only going to a few pre-selected places across the country. And it’s a way we could attract students to Grinnell: Some time in your career, you’ll get to meet with a bunch of presidential candidates.

But it’s not up to me to decide. We’ll see whether we get to be first in the nation four years from now [2].

A few of my readers have asked me to muse about the caucus process from the perspective of someone who participated in one [3]. I like the caucus; I get to see and talk to a wide variety of people. When I’m undecided, I get to talk to them about different candidates and hear more about why people have chosen to support a particular candidate. It may be corny [4] to say it, but it feels a community coming together [5].

For those not familiar with the process [7], it’s fairly straightforward. There are some introductory announcements. We elect a chair and a secretary for the meeting. We hear from representatives of some of the candidates. We get counted. This year, we got ballots, too. Then they let us form groups around the candidates we support. If a group gets 15% or more of the people present, they are considered viable. If not, they are not viable. In past years, once viability was determined, people could then switch around. This year, members of viable groups needed to stick with their viable groups, or at least their cards needed to stick with the same viable group. Members of non-viable groups can either join a viable group or try to convince members of non-viable groups to join their group in an attempt to become viable. Then they compute the number of delegates for each candidate. You can read more in the official rules or look at the picture of the agenda at the end of this musing.

So, what happened in my precinct, which I think was 2nd Ward, 7th Precinct, or something like that. We had 328 voters there, along with a variety of people who wanted to observe or have an effect. For example, the Yang campaign had sent someone from out of the precinct. I like Yang’s MATH hats. I also like the guaranteed income. Perhaps I should have supported Yang.

I noted that the form had this wonderful, Only in F(6)C situation section. I asked about it, and no one knew for sure what it meant. I find that problematic. I also find it problematic that my brain immediately went to I wonder what triggers this section.

Middle convinced me to help him caucus for Jimmy Carter, the most ethical president we’ve had in a long time. I kept hoping someone else would join us as a strategy to get more supporters for their candidate; once Carter became non-viable we would have followed them back to their preferred candidate. Someone suggested we would have been better off at the College, where some of the news crews might have covered the ad hoc campaign.

But we weren’t at the College. And it was just the two of us. So we stood there to the side, along with most of the other single-digit candidates: Bennett, Gabbard, Steyer, and Pythagoras. I tried to convince the Pythagoras supporter that he wasn’t eligible, but I had to admit that Carter, while eligible, was not running, and might be too old to serve [8].

After the second round, someone told me that they appreciated the Carter strategy because it allowed us to scope out the room before deciding who we supported, particularly since No preference can become viable. It didn’t look like it would in our room, but I hear it happened over at the College.

The new process, which was supposed to be more efficient, seemed much less efficient. People thought they were no longer viable or were told they were no longer viable, switched, then were told to go back to their original areas until counting was completed. That made things slow but did not seem to affect the accuracy of the results.

Another problem was, well, more problematic. Many people didn’t realize that you could become viable in the second round if you weren’t viable in the first round. I heard that the Mayor Pete folks were a bit frustrated, at first, because they only had 49 of the 50 people they needed to become viable, even though many of the Biden supporters had decided to switch over to them. I also hear that in the Stanford remote caucus, Amy became viable in the second round, even though she had only one supporter in the first round.

That’s about all I have to say. If you’d like, you can look at a few of the photos I took [9].

An agenda for the caucus

A hand-written sign on an easel.  2020 Democratic Caucus.  Precinct 7-Ward 2 Poweshiek Count.  1. Call caucus to order.  2. Election of permanent chair.  3. Election of permanent secretary.  4. Announcements.  5. Passing out of Presidential Preference Cards.  6. 1st Alignment into Presidential Preference Groups.  7. 2nd Alignment (Non-viable groups ONLY).  8. Election of 17 Delegates and Alternates to County Convention.  9. Election of 1 Platform Committee member (1 Alternate).  10. Election of 1 Member Committee on Committees (1 Alternate).  11. Election of 3 Central Committee Members.  12. Democratic Party Platform Proposals.  13. Ratification of Caucus.  14. Adjournment.

My home-made progressive sticker

Should I take the caucus more seriously?

A sticker composed of half of an Elizabeth Warren sticker and half of a Bernie Sanders sticker.  It appears to say something like 'I'm caucusing WARnie'.

People Waiting in the Stands, Being Counted, Holding Their Caucus Cards

A large number of people, sitting in the stands of a gym.  You can see white pieces of paper in the hands of some.  In the background, you see championship banners for the Grinnell tigers and a part of an American flag.

Caucus Card, Front

A card.  IOWA Democratic Party.  Presidential Preference Card.  An area labeled 'First Name'.  An area labeled 'Last Name'.  An area labeled 'Voting Address'.  An area labeled 'City'.  An area labeled 'State' that is pre-filled with 'Iowa'.  An area labeled 'Zip'.  A big '1'.  An area labeled 'First Preference: Please print the first & last name of the candidate you support during the first expression of preference.'  An area labeled 'Signature: Presidential preference card is not valid unless signed' with a big blue 'X' next to it.

Caucus Card, Back

Observe the puzzling text about the F(6)C situation. Michelle also appreciated that I got card 55 at age 55.

A card.  A big '2' is in the upper-left-hand corner.  The first area reads 'Second Preference: Please print the first & last name of the candidate you support during the second/final expression of preference.'  Below that is an area labeled 'Signature: Presidential preference card is not valid unless signed.'  Once again, there's an 'X' next to the signature area.  Below that 'OR check below if you choose not to align with a viable candidate during realignment if your first choice was not viable.'  Then a check box next to 'I choose not to align with a viable candidate.'  Below that, a box that says 'Paid for by the Iowa Democratic Party  Not Authorized by Any Federal Candidate or Candidates' Committee'.  In a column to the right, 'ONLY USE IN F(6)C SITUATION Candidate first and last name:', a space to fill in, 'Your Initials:', and a space for the initials.  In small letters at the bottom, 'Poweshiek | 7 GR 2ND WARD | 00055'

The sign for the Carter group

A piece of 8.5x11 paper taped to the wall with blue tape, next to the school logo.  On the paper is written 'Re-elect CARTER'.

A panoramic picture of the room

You might be able to see some of the Carter group at the right.

A panoramic shot of a gym.  In the foreground are two easels with the rules.  People are scattered in groups, with a small group in the center, and some folks by themselves at the right.

[1] Why didn’t I include myself? I hate crowds, so I don’t tend to go to the meet-and-greet events.

[2] Is there a good name for a four-year period?

[3] Okay, more than one.

[4] It is Iowa, after all.

[5] Or at least the Democrats in a community [6].

[6] Or at least the registered voters who are willing to call themselves Democrats during the caucus.

[7] Given how often the process has been described in the media, I’m not sure that there’s anyone who doesn’t know.

[8] You probably feel the same about [fill in name of candidate].

[9] You can also read, or have read aloud, the alt text I’ve written.

Version 1.0 released 2020-02-04 .

Version 1.1 of 2020-02-04.