Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dems Release Draft Of Caucus Changes

This past weekend, Iowa Democrats released the first draft of their National Delegate Selection Plan, and with it, more specific details about some first time changes in the first in the nation caucuses.

The draft rules are a 48 page read and most of it is similar to past rules (2012 for comparison). We're in the first days of a month long "public feedback" period, and this is my contribution. This is going to be a multi-parter rolled out over the week. Today I'm looking at background. Later posts will look at the logistics of the new Democratic "satellite caucus" processes, how those will affect caucus math, and finally at the pros and cons and possible pitfalls.

(If you're a pro journalist or if you just have all day free to write and want to scoop me, well goody for you. Me, I have a day job.)

Iowa's two parties are dealing with very different sets of issues going into 2016, both based on our last contested cycles. Republicans, coming off the dead-heat, changing winner result of 2012, are worried about result certification and the process of "declaring" a winner and about party officers staying neutral. And, in a lesson they learned hard in 2012, they're worried about teaching people that they need to stick around after the straw vote and actually elect the delegates.

Those are pretty much non-issues on our side. Democrats are all about rule rewrites, like we are every cycle, and about participation. We were much criticized in 2008, over both our first in the nation role and for our Must Be Present To Play rules. And frankly there was a lot of overlap between those complaints and Hillary Clinton's support. It was made clear to us early on this cycle that if we wanted to keep First we would need to address some of the participation issues affecting shift workers and military personnel.

And, complicating things, that we would have to do it in a way other than a simple absentee ballot, which New Hampshire's secretary of state would likely consider an "election" rather than a "caucus."

I dropped out of grad school, but not before memorizing the phrase "While the following issues merit further research, they are beyond the parameters of this study":
  • The whole question of which order of states is fair, whether we should have national primaries or rotating regional contests, and the value of being First.
  • The whole question of caucuses vs. primaries, and the question of whether we should let New Hampshire's objections determine that.
  • The Democratic Party's refusal to release an in-the-door, first alignment "vote count." 
If you want to keep reading, buy into this much realpolitik for the sake of argument: First Is Valuable, Iowa wants to and should keep it, and to keep it we need to deal with New Hampshire. Also assume, which seems safe since Iowa has resisted it so strong for so long, that New Hampshire has an objection to a combination of binding results and a vote total. (As we all learned in 2012, the Iowa Republican "vote total" is not binding on the national delegates.)

This plan appears to be the first formal indication that Iowa Democrats are planning to caucus on Monday, February 1. Republicans formally selected that date in August.

That's the latest caucus date since 1996 (February 12), which matters a lot to me, here in a college town. The last decent student-friendly caucus date was 2000 (January 24).  2004 was January 19, the day before UI classes started and also - this drew complaints from African American and civil rights activists - MLK Day. The January 3 dates in 2008 and 2012 devastated turnout in our campus precincts.

February 1 might actually stick this time. The schedule leapfrogging that plagued 2003, 2007 and 2011 and forced Iowa to make multiple date changes seems to have settled down this cycle.

It's vital to the caucus process that the two parties keep the same date (which we almost didn't in 2014). David Yepsen used to argue that it was a strain on buildings and parking and other resources, and there's some truth to that. But fact is, the shared date and time is the check and balance that keeps people from caucusing in both parties. Just one person going to a Democratic caucus on Monday and a Republican caucus on Thursday, then having a press conference to brag about it, could prove fatal to First.

That shared date and time is one of the reasons Iowa Democrats chose a "satellite caucus" process, rather than what I initially preferred, a very tightly controlled proxy process.

There's been some criticism from Republicans of bringing "absentee voting" into the caucuses.  But what the Democrats propose is not an "absentee vote" at all. You still have to be in a designated spot at Caucus Moment. The difference is, that designated spot may be at your nursing home or in your break room at work or in front of your webcam, rather than the caucus site for the precinct you live in.

The idea is imported from Nevada in 2008, when they held satellite caucuses at the big hotels and casinos for the staff. Iowa has few places that are as big and as 24 hour, but the idea is to show that we're trying.

Our Republican friends also need to understand that our fates are tied together here. The tradition is we work together for First In The Nation, but we each set our own rules. Republicans don't have to LIKE our rules, but if Democrats lose First In The Nation, Republicans almost certainly do, too. And our national committee is telling us that if we want to keep First, we HAVE to make a good faith effort to be more inclusive of shift workers and troops.

You do support the troops, right? Good. Then you can support the Democratic Party's effort to help them participate. Next post, I'll explain just how that's supposed to work.

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