Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Democratic Caucus Changes Part 3: County 100 and Caucus Math 101

Iowa Democrats have released their draft of the 2016 national delegate selection plan, which for the first time includes a military tele-caucus for troops overseas and satellite caucuses for people who can't physically be in their precincts.

In part one of my review I looked at background and basics, and in the second part I went through the logistics of how the military and satellite caucuses are supposed to work. Now it's time for the math. Get some coffee.

The Iowa Democratic caucuses are heavy on math and delegate counts. There's the 15% viability threshold, and there's delegates to county conventions who elect delegates to district and state conventions who elect delegates to the national convention.

And all this math is built on geography - precincts, counties, and congressional districts.

So how do you calculate the math without the geography? How do you assign the "votes" (repeat after me: caucuses are a party meeting, not an election) of people who are not in their precinct or county or even on the North American continent on caucus night?

Well, the Democrats are proposing a kind of geographic fiction. Think of the satellite caucuses as a 100th county that is not part of a congressional district.

The 100th county MUST be named Bloom County - in honor of vice presidential candidate Penguin Opus and former Iowa Citian Berke Breathed, and NOT for caucus critic Stephen Bloom.

And the military tele-caucus is a 101st County. Let's call that Afghanistan County, because I don't want to make a joke here.

The draft rules say that the Bloom County Satellite Caucuses, as a whole, will elect three delegates to the state convention.  The Afghanistan County military tele-caucus will elect two state convention delegates. The actual people who are the delegates will be chosen by the presidential preference group(s).

Unlike the other delegates to the state convention, the Bloom and Afghanistan County delegates will not be delegates to a congressional district convention, because Bloom and Afghanistan counties are not in any congressional district. (I really need to discuss that with my old pal redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering. He also deals with in fractional caucus math: "I used to work in New Jersey and if you asked for a half a body, well, I knew a guy.")

So how big a deal is five delegates to the state convention?  We can't really say until we know what to divide 5 by - and the state central committee doesn't set the overall size of the state convention till May. But I'll make some assumptions based on past years.

County delegation size at Iowa Democratic district and state conventions is determined by the county's top of ticket vote in the last two general elections. That means Obama 2012 and Hatch 2014.  You add those votes, decide your convention size, and allocate accordingly.

The 2008 state convention had 2500 delegate seats. In 2004, it was 3000. Based on my non-eidetic memory that range of allocation is typical, though in the end actual attendance is usually much lower. Assuming a convention size of 2500 from here on out, Bloom and Afghanistan Counties combined would be 0.2% of the state convention.

So how does that compare to a real county with land and pigs and stuff?

I simplified things and looked only at the 2012 results, because that's enough to prove the big picture point. The three delegates from the Bloom County satellite caucuses would be the equivalent of a county that cast 987 votes for Obama.  That would place the "county" at 98½th place, just below Adams County. The smallest population county, Adams cast 1028 Obama votes.

Obama's lowest vote total, and thus the smallest state convention delegation in my simplified example, was Osceola. It ranks 95th in population but is more Republican than Adams, and cast just 912 Obama votes. Perspective: All but one PRECINCT in Iowa City topped that.

The two delegates from the Afghanistan County military tele-caucus are the equivalent of a 658 Obama vote county, which would be the smallest but not by a lot. Again, the Hatch vote gets factored in too, but that wouldn't change much: the satellite and military caucuses are a very small part of the big picture. Assuming that the big picture is math, which it isn't.

Of course, if the convention size is smaller, those delegates are a bigger percentage. And these numbers are not set in stone. We're in a public comment period. If you think those shares should be bigger or smaller, comment.

But you don't know the math, that's what you keep me around for. So you're asking me: is that share fair?

How much each individual "vote" matters in the big picture depends on how many people show up, and there are no benchmarks to measure interest in the satellite caucuses yet.

Thinking out loud here, let's look at our hypothetical "not recommended but for the sake of argument" potential satellite caucus at Iowa City's Oaknoll retirement community. Iowa City Precinct 2, which includes Oaknoll, cast 1,228 votes for Obama - more than the three smallest counties, in just one precinct. (Again, that's only looking at the presidential vote - and factoring in 2014 in the one county that Jack Hatch won would just emphasize it more.)

So Iowa City Precinct 2 gets more state delegate equivalents than all of the statewide satellite caucuses combined. So Oaknoll residents may have more influence on the big picture contest, and certainly more influence over the other parts of the process like the central committees, if they attend the regular caucus.

As for the military: In my county in 2012, we had 172 registered Democrats request military and overseas ballots. Not all of those were returned, and some of those were from overseas civilians who would not be eligible for the military caucus. An absentee ballot is an easier process than signing up a month in advance for a conference call, and a caucus is not an election.

But that's A number. And that number is 0.3% of the 50,666 votes Obama got in Johnson County. We're comparing apples and oranges, and I see round fruit of similar size.

Also worth noting: there are a lot of variations between counties in attendance vs. delegate count which affect the "value" of each "vote."  In 2004 it took four times as many people to elect a state delegate in Johnson County as it did in Fremont County.

(Note: After 2004, the IDP stopped releasing by-county attendance figures. That's a change we could/should un-do. Look, we know you're never gonna give up the first alignment body count that the national press wants, but throw me a frickin bone here.)

So if the satellite and military guesstimates are off by that much, it's not unprecedented. Have I mentioned that caucuses are not an election?

(How to tell the difference: In an election, I work long hours and get paid overtime at my duly negotiated union rate. In a caucus, I work long hours doing much the same kind of work, I get paid nothing, and I take vacation days to do it. All ist klar, Herr Kommissar?) 
This is not about fundamentally changing our process, which would be a Very Bad Thing. It's about participation. This is about addressing two very specific criticisms of Iowa. And the point isn't making all the math perfect. The national critics don't care about the micro-details. The specific criticism is These People Can't "Vote." This is about showing that we're listening and making an effort.

2016 is an experiment. And to me, these relatively small numbers feel fair for an experiment. After this first effort gives us some data, the delegate count details can be adjusted for 2020.

Assuming we even HAVE a caucus in 2020. And that, along with some other cons and pros, is what I'm concluding this series with.

No comments: