Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Caucus Changes: The One Significant Problem

I do not want to understate this: The Iowa Democratic Party's Virtual Caucus plan for next February's first in the nation caucus is, in the big picture, good. People who can't attend in person can participate, New Hampshire is mollified for the moment, and it meets the DNC's requirement to release a raw vote count.

But this is a draft plan, and drafts invite critiques.

There's still one piece to the plan that needs work: the way that votes from the Virtual Caucus get counted toward the state and national delegate counts.

As I said in part one, my personal preference is for a primary. But I accept the political impossibility of that - not that Iowa Democrats should not be considering that, but that Iowa Republicans are running the state and see no reason to change.

Given that, my second choice would have been to send those absentee votes - "virtual attendees" as we are now calling them - out to the precincts. The caucus chair opens up a smart phone app and sees "Simon 22, Jackson 18, Gephardt 6, Babbitt 1, Dukakis 19, Gore 0, Kevin Phillips Bong naught." They get counted as if they were in the room, and there's some kind of system to re-allocate the ones that are non-viable.

I like that - but I have worked in an election office for 21 years and I spend my free time setting up caucuses and playing with complicated election math and lists and writing stuff like this. I am not normal (my mother had me tested). And in yesterday's conference call, IDP chair Troy Price indicated that local activists weren't keen on that kind of complication (and by implication were more than happy to let the state party deal with it).

So the state party will. And they will do it by taking the Virtual Caucus votes and pooling them at the congressional district level. As Price described it, it will be like adding a county to each congressional district, Virtual Caucus County so to speak. Within each CD's Virtual Caucus County, non-viable votes will be re-allocated by second/third/fourth/fifth choice until they're in a group with 15% viability.

For me that's not as good as doing it at the precinct or even county level, but it's still pretty good.

Here's the catch, and here's the single biggest flaw to the whole plan.

The Virtual Caucus vote will count for 10% of each congressional district's delegate math. (The non-virtual counties will be allocated as they always have been, based on votes for president and governor in the last two general elections.)

If 10% of Iowa Democratic caucus participants choose to participate in the Virtual Caucus rather than going to the traditional in-person caucus, they count for 10% of the delegate allocation. And that's good.

But if 50% of people choose the Virtual Caucus, they still only count for 10%.

In addition to the question of fairness, this raises a couple other issues: campaign strategy and overcrowding.
While Pat Rynard at Iowa Starting Line sums the overall plan up as "pretty neat and a good step forward," he notes:
By capping the delegates you can get from the virtual caucuses at 10% of the total, it's not clear what is the most beneficial approach for a campaign. Someone's vote could count more by going in person to their local caucus... or maybe not!
Basically, with this setup, if I were running a campaign, I wouldn't try to just go around trying to sign up my supporters who could go in-person to their caucus for this virtual system. I'd probably only limit it to people who legitimately can't turn out on caucus night.
With the new rule of locking down attendees once they are in  a viable group, IDP is rightly moving away from strategic game playing toward a more open and fair system. But weighing votes differently depending on how they are cast introduces new ways to play games, some of which we can't even envision yet.

But for me the bigger problem, indeed the biggest problem of all with the caucus, is overcrowding.

City High caucus, Iowa City, January 3, 2008: Attendance 719.
That climbed to 935 in 2016.

The caucuses as they existed in 2016 were NOT a "neighborhood meeting" for "organizing the party." They were a frustrating endurance exercise of being crammed into a too-small room, and trying to understand confusing and arcane rules. 430 people attended my caucus, but only 30 stayed once alignment was final, and only 15 stayed for the platform and party business once the delegates were chosen.

And this is most people's only interaction with the local party structure. How many times have you heard a variation of this: "The caucus was so disorganized, the Democrats don't have their act together, I'm never going to any of their things again."

Some of the rule changes, especially the ones locking down people once they are in viable groups and letting them go home if they want, will help. But as far back as 2004 the caucuses had outgrown "neighborhood meeting."

There simply are not enough rooms in enough neighborhoods that are big enough to hold the number of people who want to attend. There are not enough parking spaces to hold all the cars when you require all the "voters" to be at the "polls" at the same time rather than letting them come and go all day. More and more venues are saying no, legally or not, because they don't want the crowds in their facilities.

The Virtual Caucus needs to be the centerpiece of addressing the overcrowding problem.  We need 50 to 80% of people voting early, to get physical attendance back down to the 2000 and 2004 levels, or else we won't be able to fit into the space available.  

Yet how can I in good faith encourage 50 to 80% of my county's caucus goers to sign up for the Virtual Caucus, when their votes will only count for 10% of the delegate allocation? I can tell people who could not otherwise attend to sign up, and that's good (my own wife missed Caucus Night 2016 because she had mandatory overtime).

But I would have to tell anyone who was wavering, or only looking to vote Virtual for convenience rather than necessity: "Your vote will count more if you go in person." 

Maybe not, because in theory only 1 or 2 or 5% of people could choose the virtual caucus. But in practice it seems that 10% is a severe underestimate of the interest in a system where you do not have to fight that crowd and can sit at home and vote on your phone.

So that's the problem. Here's a couple solutions.

Laura "Bleeding Heartland" Belin, who is also mostly positive about the plan, would like to see the Virtual Caucus counted based on turnout.
If 20,000 Democrats caucus virtually and 180,000 caucus in person, then 10 percent is the right share of delegates to assign based on the virtual results. But if 50,000 people sign up to caucus virtually and 200,000 show up at precinct caucuses on February 3, then the virtual caucuses should determine 20 percent of the total state delegates. If 100,000 people call in and 150,000 attend precinct caucuses, then 40 percent of the state delegates should be assigned based on the virtual results.
That seems fair and reasonable. I'd like to take it a step further, make the whole caucus process more fair, and maybe promote my own county's self-interest.

Since the party is going to calculate and release a raw vote count for both the first alignment AND the realignment, why not simply base the national delegate count on that?

Put all the votes from each congressional district, virtual and in person, into one pool. Reallocate non-viable votes as needed - either through ranked choices for the virtual voters or realignment for the people who attend. Then allocate the national delegates based on that CD level vote.

This keeps the Hard Math at the state level and not the local level, and eliminates the need to pre-determine or estimate what share of the vote should be allocated to the virtual caucus. To repeat the House District 55 mantra: just count all the votes. There would be some minor variation between the four congressional districts, but within each CD it would be one person, one vote.

Caucus delegate counts, at both the precinct and county level, are not based on one person one vote. They are in effect based on a hypothetical general election universe, with precincts and counties allocated delegates based on their performance for governor and president in the last two general elections.

That rewards precincts and counties that vote Democratic in general elections but do not show up for the caucuses, and punishes counties that both do well in general elections AND turn out heavily on caucus night.

That would be us.

Johnson County gets a lot of shade for being "the People's Republic," but we also produce the best Democratic margins in the state and provide a lot of cash to candidates in other districts.

But on caucus night, the rules sell us short and we are punished for our own success. Our votes count less than small counties. Because delegates are allocated by general election vote, we only counted for 6% of the 2016 delegates. Yet we were 11.5% of the statewide caucus turnout. Put another way, a vote in Random Average County was twice as valuable as one in Johnson - and this has been the case for cycle after cycle.

One person one vote would give Johnson County what we consider our fair share. I understand that the small counties won't like my one person one vote idea - but nothing is stopping any other county from showing up at the same percentage rate that Johnson County does! If rural travel is harder, well, now we have the virtual option so that's not an excuse anymore.

So those are two ways to more fairly allocate the Virtual Caucus votes. However, there's one major catch to my one person one vote plan: the Iowa Democratic Party's constitution requires that state convention delegates be allocated by county based on general election results. That can and should be changed to one person one vote - but that can't happen till the next state convention in June 2020. Since that's the case, I'm with Belin: give the virtual caucus a share of the delegates based on their participation rate.

But IF we are going to be married to the idea of Virtual Caucus County equals a pre-determined X% of the allocation, then X needs to be a lot bigger than 10.

One of Price's arguments for the 10% number is that there is no track record available to estimate how many people will choose an absentee process - which is true - and it's "a good starting point."

Another starting point would be to use the same principle we use to allocate delegates to counties: the general election results. Again, I want to get away from that and move toward one person one vote. But if we're going to use that, then consider the Democratic vote in the 2016 and 2018 general elections:

Absentee vote Total
2016 Clinton 331,964 653,669 50.78%
2018 Hubbell 293,920 630,986 46.58%
Combined 625,884 1,284,655 48.72%

Just over half of Iowa Hillary Clinton voters, and just under half of Fred Hubbell's voters, chose an early ballot.

So, if you're going to have a pre-set percentage, I'd be a lot more comfortable with the Virtual Caucus share of the delegates at 50% rather than 10 - especially since we need to get roughly 50% of the crowd out of the caucus rooms in order to fit.

I would also be a lot more comfortable encouraging people who are concerned about "how much" their vote will count to choose virtual caucusing rather than in person if the Virtual Caucus was weighted at 50% rather than 10. Sure, it's a guessing game - but it's a better guess with some math behind it. And if the guess is too high, well, then the people who were historically under-represented because they couldn't attend in person will be over-represented for one cycle.

Monday's roll out of the delegate selection plan was the start of a 30 day public comment period. So I've made my public comment, and I'd encourage other Iowa Democrats to think about these things and share your thoughts with Troy Price or your friendly neighborhood state central committee member.

As for me, I'm more than ready to do the work of making the 2020 caucuses happen, and it will be an all hands on deck task. Help your candidate, sure, but help with the prep work and the signing in and the explaining too.

Caucus Changes Part 2: Lots Of Good Stuff Happening

Gotta hand it to party chair Troy Price and the whole team at the Iowa Democratic Party. They have come up with a crafty and creative solution to a problem that seemed insurmountable: how to meet a Democratic National Committee mandate that caucus states have an absentee process, without triggering New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's somewhat inscrutable standards about the difference between a "caucus" and a "primary" and thus prompting him to move his state ahead of Iowa on the calendar.

The big picture plan, for those tuning in late, is a good one. IDP will offer a half dozen phone-in "virtual caucuses" in the final days before, and on, Caucus Night. Advance registration will be required, but anyone who wants to can sign up. The virtual caucus will let people cast a ranked choice vote (up to five).

The virtual caucus votes will go into one pool at the congressional district level. If your first choice is non viable your vote transfers to your second choice, and so on, until you are in a viable group. The only way you "don't count" is if all five choices are nonviable or if you don't make all your choices.

These Virtual Caucus votes will, under the draft plan, count for 10% of each congressional district's allocation (which I will discuss more in part three).

The most interesting thing about this Phoning It In approach is that Iowa, after meeting with Gardner off and on for months, may finally have cracked his code.

The word that makes a caucus into an election seems to be "ballot" - both marking one and qualifying for one.

Eccentric person with funny headgear

Political junkies (if you are reading this, you are) have all seen the New Hampshire primary filing pictures - state law requires the candidate, be it Hillary Clinton or Vermin Supreme (the very real perennial candidate pictured above), to file in person at Gardner's office. My sense is Gardner revels in this - and does not want a similar "filing" picture coming out of Iowa.

Which is why it's being called "virtual caucus" and "non-present" and not "absentee ballot," and why the re-countable part of the in-person caucus process (another new DNC mandate) is being called a "preference card" and not a "ballot." My bet-the-beret bet  is these preference cards will NOT be printed with names in advance, because that would imply that candidates "filed" and "qualified."

I'm still not 100% convinced that Gardner will be OK with this - he plays his cards close to the vest and won't be Officially setting New Hampshire's date until as late as possible (current DNC calendars say February 11, 2020, with Iowa on February 3). He isn't saying, but initial reaction from others in New Hampshire has been positive.

The other DNC mandate is for release of a raw vote count - which has always been the deepest darkest secret of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Now that we HAVE to, IDP is planning on releasing caucus results in three formats:
  • the first alignment body count from all caucus goers virtual and in person
  • the count after everyone is re-realigned into a 15% viable group, either through virtual second choice votes or the traditional in person going to another corner
  • the state delegate equivalent, which is how Iowa Democrats have always reported caucus results in the past
Only Iowa party activists, the delegate counters for the campaigns, and a handful of numbers-geeky national reporters (I'm thinking Steve Kornacki and maybe Chuck Todd) will care at all about delegate equivalents or realignment. The headline out of Iowa will be what the national press has always wanted and what Iowa Republicans have provided: the winner based on the first alignment vote count.

(What we are NOT likely to get is precinct and county level detail. My impression from yesterday's press conference call and from overall feedback is that local activists did not want their math complicated any further by having to factor in absentee- oops, virtual - votes.)

The virtual caucus plan also addresses a concern I've heard and expressed for years: that a not-present process would turn Iowa into a "year long absentee chase" by the campaigns. The timeline to sign up is late and it is relatively short: January 6 to 17, with the first Virtual Caucus set for January 29. That doesn't address the nightmare scenario of the Caucus Night Ice Storm or the individual issue of a personal thing coming up - but neither does an election. You either make your plan and vote early, or if you wait till Election Day you take your chance.

Once you sign up for Virtual Caucus, you can choose to call in for any one of the six - but you CAN'T change your mind and attend in person instead. That's part of why the last Virtual Caucus is scheduled to coincide with the in-person caucus, so people who change their mind and show up will still have one last chance to call in.

The late dates also address a concern unique to the presidential nomination process: last second changes in the field of candidates. A lot of California early voters will cast ballots for people who will drop out before that state's primary day. (Of course this can happen to early voters in regular elections, too, says the guy who voted for Nate Boulton on the first day of the 2018 governor primary.) Past caucus cycles have seen people drop out at the last second, and a late schedule (along with ranked choices) minimizes that factor.

These new options will require some earlier deadlines. Virtual Caucus participants will have to be registered Democrats by December 31, before signing up for the Virtual Caucus itself during the January 6-17 window. That's stricter than Iowa election law, but not bad compared to deadlines in other states (New York independents had to re-register months before the primary). And people registering or re-registering later, as late as Caucus Night itself, will still be able to caucus. They'll just have to go in person.

If you DO go in person, not much will be different. Price acknowledged in yesterday's call that speeding up sign-in and taking pressure off crowded rooms is still a priority but he did not go into details. (The BEST way to speed up sign-in is to get everyone registered as a D, and at their current address, by that December 31 date. As for the best way to deal with the crowds, that will be in part three.)

The single biggest difference will be in the realignment stage. Only people in the under 15% non-viable groups will be allowed to re-align. Once you are in a viable group, you are locked in.

And you can go home. Keeping all the cats herded until re-alignment is final is one of the most frustrating pieces of the caucus, both for attendees and for campaigns. This is not quite the Iowa GOP's "show up, vote, and leave," but it's a small step in that direction.

I had a bad experience with this in, of all years, 2012. That was at the height of Occupy, who were caucusing Uncommitted against Obama, and I knew it would be rough when I was challenged for chair, and almost lost. We had an odd number of delegates and a standoff for the last one. Uncommitted filibustered until a couple in the Obama corner announced that they had to go home to relieve their child care - and we may have been the only precinct in the state that the president lost.

So that tactic is gone, and so is the Old Bank Shot routine: "loaning" a candidate a few supporters as a strategic move to screw a third candidate. That's how Martin O'Malley won his lone Johnson County delegate; Team Hillary sent over a couple people to make him viable and to deny the delegate to Sanders.

Caucus night horsetrading has declined in recent years anyway. Historically, the prize for cutting a deal was the delegate seat. "I'll join Team X if I can be the delegate." When the caucus crowd was mainly party regulars, it was easier for a precinct captain to broker that deal and get the group to go along. But with increased attendance, increased campaign intensity, and more new faces, people are less willing to make that deal: "I've been with Hillary from the beginning. I want the delegate to be a Real Hillary Person and not this dude who just came over from O'Malley."

Party regulars may or may not like these tactics. But the new faces, who would rather just cast a secret ballot and go home, HATE them.

My sense is that this change is not being made to stop horsetrading. A true savant might still  be able to read the room and stash a few people away in a weak group, but you risk locking your people into an accidentally viable group.

What this is about is speeding things up. Example from my 2008 caucus:

All seven delegates were allocated: Obama had four, Edwards had two, and Clinton was hanging on to viability with one. The Dodd and Biden and Kucinich people had moved, but there was still a Bill Richardson group about three bodies short of viable. The Richardson people kept demanding more time and kept begging people to move - but it was not to anyone's advantage. To give Richardson a delegate, someone else would have to give one up.

This wasted about 45 minutes, during which a Richardson supporter kept screaming "Democracy takes time! Democracy takes time!" while the three viable groups tried to keep their people, not from defecting to Richardson, but from going home.

Under the new rules, this would not happen. The people in the three viable groups would be locked in, and could go home if they wanted or needed, and the people in the one non-viable group would have to move. (They would, however, get their choice reported in the raw vote count, for what that's worth.)

So all of this is good. People who can't attend can participate, New Hampshire is mollified for the moment, and in at least one big way things will move faster. But there's still one piece to the plan that needs some work, as we will see in part three.

Caucus Changes, Part 1: Primary Problems

One advantage of being a mere hobbyist blogger rather than a professional writer is that I have no deadlines. I write when I feel like it. And for the issue of changes in the Iowa caucus, I decided I needed time to think more than I needed to be fast, and there will be a long wonky post once I think it all through.

But before I dig into that I'm going to look at and set aside, for now and for the sake of argument, the question of switching to a primary, because some of the national reactions were "just have a primary."

While most of the first reactions to the Iowa Democratic Party's proposed caucus changes (which I will discuss in detail in two more posts) has been positive, more than a few people have responded in our Twitter feeds with JUST HAVE A PRIMARY. Some of these are sincere, and some are anti-Iowa trolls. (Daily Kos in particular has had a grudge against Iowa ever since 2004 when we tanked Howard Dean.)

The Scream was AFTER, and less of a problem than, the Disappointing Third Place.

After a lot of thought I, too,  have come to the conclusion that the Iowa caucuses have gotten so large and unwieldy that they cannot function as a "town meeting" to "build the party," and are instead a de facto election, with difficult rules, conducted by amateurs and volunteers. So philosophically I'm inclined to switch to a primary, even at the cost of First In The Nation.

First, of course, is the issue. In a complicated game of semantics and standoffs, two states have been "first" for the last 40 years: Iowa with the first caucus and New Hampshire with the first primary. Every move Iowa makes - and by "Iowa" I mean the political leadership of both parties - is with one eye on New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has a pitbull devotion to his state's law that New Hampshire "shall" have the first primary "or similar contest." (How is one state's law in any way binding on the other 49?)

Personally, I'd like to confront this head on. Schedule a primary before New Hampshire. Or concede the flaws in caucuses and concede First, but lobby for another slot in the early states like second or third - as a primary.

That's not happening this cycle. The leadership of both parties is committed to some version of the status quo standoff.

But what if the Democrats weren't? What if Iowa Democrats decided we actually want to switch to a primary?

Well, that's still a non-starter - because the Republicans have full control of state government.

That's the fundamental problem for people who would like the Democrats to tell states no caucuses, primaries only. Election law is mostly state law, not federal law, and the Democratic Party cannot tell Republican run states what to do. Each state has its own political culture, and some states, like Iowa, have a caucus culture. Other states are worried about money and have caucuses because the parties pay for those (in most states, primaries are government funded, though parties are billed in a few places).

Democrats have used that as an excuse before in different situations. When GOP-run Florida moved its 2008 primary date up to January 31, in violation of the rules of both parties, Democrats moaned and cried and said they couldn't do anything (even though Florida Dems, most of all Iowa caucus hater Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were willing junior partners). And, in the end, they and Michigan got away with it with no penalties, because they are big swing states.

But, hypothetically, if we wanted a primary, could Iowa Democrats persuade Iowa Republicans?

I've worked with local Republican activists a lot, both in my election office job and outside of work on caucus issues. The Johnson County Democrats and Republicans have a good relationship on caucus issues (as long as we avoid policy issues) and we team up to work on them.

My GOP activist friends are understanding and sympathetic to the reality that the Democratic National Committee rule changes, requiring caucus states to provide some sort of absentee system, are forcing Iowa to change.

But they are concerned that any monkeying with the system we have risks First. What I hear from Republicans is: "if you have absentees, that makes it not a caucus." And they are worried that THEY will lose First on their side because of rule changes on OUR side - because when it comes to First it's about the states, not the parties.

No one is pressuring or forcing Iowa Republicans to change their process. The accessibility and disenfranchisement issues that that drove the DNC to push for caucus changes simply don't resonate as much on the Republican side.

So Iowa Republicans would rather stay safe and keep what they have, and feel no need to do Democrats a favor by switching to a primary... which the Democrats aren't asking for anyway.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Warren, Northam, and "Soul Man"

Touchy issues of race on the Twitter feed today, as Virginia governor Ralph Northam tries to cling to political life after yearbook photos from 1984 showing him in either blackface or a KKK robe have come to light.

The shifting story - first apologizing, then backtracking and saying he's not one of the two people pictured - is implausible. And obviously the photo is indefensible.

But I'm about the same age, and I have to ask: While Klan robes were clearly understood as offensive by the Civil Rights era, did every young person in the mid-80s really get or accept that blackface was wrong?

(The positive Bill Cosby reference makes it even MORE dated.)

This was a major motion picture released in 1986, the height of the Reagan era, when backlash to affirmative action was kicking in as a big wedge issue. Refresher on the plot for my younger readers: Rich white dude poses as black to get a minority scholarship to Harvard Law. That's right, the entire premise of the movie was blackface, and the contrived Moral Of The Story ending did not make it better. (And what on earth convinced James Earl Jones, Darth Vader Himself, to play a good-sized supporting role?)

I remember "Soul Man" (and by extension blackface yearbook photos) being considered cringe-worthy even then, in reasonably enlightened circles... but it was still a hit. A person with a graduate level education should have known better than blackface in the mid-80s, but the mainstream success of "Soul Man" shows that a lot of people didn't, or didn't care.

Affirmative action, and Harvard Law, are also at the core of the controversy around Elizabeth Warren's DNA test and subsequent apology to the Cherokee Nation. Warren has long claimed Cherokee ancestry, and both she and Harvard promoted this "fact," but the testing revealed that her Native genetic share was minuscule, roughly one great-great-great grandparent to great-great-great-great-great grandparent.

Yet I have never understood the Big Deal here. It was clearly a piece of family lore passed down over generations and exaggerated over lifetimes before Warren was even born. She no doubt believed it was true.

Cheap commercial DNA testing for genealogical purposes, as opposed to medical use or criminal investigation, has only been a mainstream thing in the last few years.It certainly wasn't available in 1992, when Warren first taught at Harvard, or 1995, when she was permanently hired.

By coincidence, I worked in a genetic lab (as a clerk) in that same era. We needed good-sized, specially treated and handled blood or amnio fluid draws or tissue samples back then just to count chromosomes and identify major structural chromosome issues. You certainly couldn't mail a saliva sample or cheek swab in and identify markers.

In the mid-90s, what reason would Warren have had to doubt family ancestry tales she had been told her whole life? Partial Native ancestry is not at all uncommon in her home state of Oklahoma, which has the highest percentage Native population in the country (because the land long knowns as "Indian Territory" was considered so worthless that it was the last piece of the Lower 48 that whites took from the Natives.)

It may have benefited both, but if both Warren and Harvard believed her Native ancestry was more extensive than was later shown on her genetic profile, there is no one to blame except 1) her long dead ancestors and 2) the entire system of diversity in hiring or "affirmative action." And voters who are angry about "quotas" are already firmly in the Trump base, have been since the "Soul Man" era,  and unlikely to consider voting for ANY of the Democrats running.

In any case, Warren repeating family tall tales she believed to be true is hardly equal to "Soul Man," or to Northam's behavior which was beginning to be understood as offensive even then.