Friday, January 03, 2020

Cassandra At The Caucus: One Month Out

I have been quite busy since my semi-retirement from blogging, doing rather than reporting. I last attended a candidate event in September. In addition to getting through the city-school election at my day job, I have been doing the leg work for my county's caucuses.

And here we are: the 12 year anniversary of Barack Obama's win, the 8 year anniversary of the Republican dead heat, and one calendar month away from 2020.

One old caucus hand told me I should complain about the caucuses less and do more to help, though I don't know what more I can do besides recruiting almost all the chairs, booking the rooms, helping train the volunteers, answering the questions, and doing more media interviews than I can count.

After doing one of those interviews yesterday via email, I realized that I had more or less written a blog post. It may be repetitive to my long time readers, but I have been shouting the same warnings into the wilderness for four years to no avail, so I may as earn one more right to say I Told You So after the fact.

Essentially nothing has been done to address the issue of overcrowding in the largest urban precincts. But to be fair about this, the Iowa Democratic Party was making a good effort with its plan for a phone-in "virtual caucus." That was mainly meant as an accessibility program, to include people who could otherwise not attend. The campaigns were not buying in because it counted less than in person attendance, but nearly a third of likely caucus goers were telling pollsters that they would consider it anyway. The Johnson County Democrats were planning to make a big push to encourage Virtual Caucus in order to take pressure off our most crowded sites.

IDP spent nearly a year working on Virtual Caucus, and they were assured by the DNC every step of the way that it was a good plan - until all of a sudden in September it wasn't anymore. Had they told us from the start "we think a phone in system is a security risk," we would have had time to come up with another plan (like actual absentee ballots).

But in September, it was too late to come up with any major new changes and build a new system from scratch. Thanks, DNC. Satellite Caucus was dusted off, basically because it was the only plan that was on the shelf and it had been tried in 2016 with limited success. (Four sites statewide - three flopped but Oaknoll, the biggest retirement community in Iowa City, was a smash hit.)

There are 99 satellite caucus sites this year, but some are very obscure, like a guy's house in Tblisi, Georgia at 4 AM local time (which is caucus hour here). Basically, you had to be in the loop during a very narrow window in October and early November to know you needed to ask for a satellite caucus. It will help a few in-the-know snowbirds, the people at Oaknoll, and the nurses at UIHC and the firefighters at the West Side station who have to work that shift. But it won't get a single body out of our most crowded rooms. Basically everyone at a satellite caucus will be someone who would just not have attended otherwise.

(Aside: That term "satellite caucus" is unfortunate. In our county people hear about it and think that means the kind of satellite voting we do, zip into a public library and zip out. They don't realize that it means a mini-caucus at a different location.)

I also appreciate that the severe overcrowding is, to some extent, a "Johnson County problem." I was madder about that type of dismissal till I looked at the numbers and realized that's, well, kind of true.

Of the 11 precincts in the state (out of 1681 total) with over 600 in attendance in 2016, there was the campus precinct in Grinnell, the campus precinct at Iowa State, two in Des Moines... and seven of ours. That's a big burden to place on one county.

In 2016 the mean average attendance statewide was 102 people. The median was just 65.  In Johnson County, the average was 342. We had seven of the 10 biggest precincts in the state and 19 of the top 40. The last time I saw anyone with 7 of the top 10 and 19 in the top 40 was when Drake dropped an album.

The caucus process was never designed to be a mass participation event that was the equivalent of an election. It was meant to be the handful of core party activists in the precinct - 20 or 40 people who were familiar with process and rules and were meeting at their friend's house.

In some parts of Iowa it's still like that. In off years it's still like that in Johnson County. And at that size it still works.

As we argued last spring over the way the late unlamented virtual caucus vote was being allocated, it became clear to me that the caucuses are yet another rural-urban split in Iowa. The rural counties are convinced that without mandatory in person attendance to vote, they will not be able to organize their counties - and I understand that, and I understand that we are supposed to be all about Winning Back The Rurals this year.

A 2008 caucus on the east side of Iowa City, with 719 people attending.

But what about the BEST county? What about the county that for the last three cycles, in every state and federal race, has voted 13 to 15% more Democratic than any other county in the state? We are ALREADY organized, and this process hurts more than it helps. Knowing that's it's mostly a Johnson County Problem does not solve the problem. And - and this is what I'm still upset about - it does not mean the problem should just be dismissed.

We simply need a different system for the urban counties, a system that recognizes our lifestyles and needs and political folkways - and that rewards our outstanding performance each general election. Win back the rurals, yes, but give Johnson County and Polk County some credit and some respect. And in Johnson County, what we like and what we want and what we need is convenient multi-option early voting.

The biggest precinct in the state in 2016 was Iowa City 17 with 945 people. (We beat the Grinnell campus precinct by ten voters.) Our biggest in 2008 was 720 in precinct 18 - but remember that 2008 was on January 3 during UI's winter break, which suppressed turnout. We expect to top 1000 in both these precincts this time. We expect to be over 500 in dozens of our 57 precincts. And a caucus process that was designed for 20 to 40 people does not scale up well to a crowd of 500 to 1000. Once you get past the grade school gym capacity of 200 to 250, you can't do any "organizing." It's just crowd control and anger management.

You can do a lot to prepare for 500 people. You can train better, you can get more volunteers. But you can't solve the problem of the biggest room in (or near) the precinct being too small to hold the crowd you KNOW will be there. What is my county party supposed to do, build an 8000 seat arena with a 6000 car parking lot on the east side of Iowa City?

We've done better with rooms than we did in 2016. Sometimes that was due to better cooperation from the University and the schools but sometimes it was rented space at considerable expense to the county party. For example, we outgrew the free location at the Iowa City Public Library, so we rented out the Englert Theater. We had a hotel ballroom on the far north side of Iowa City that we turned down for the cost in 2016. We regretted that and we took it, at a slightly higher cost, this time.  It's money well spent - but it's another extra burden on a local party, in a community that is already expected to export money to other races across the state.

In some places, residential precincts full of single family homes, there's not an option like the Englert and we have to take a too-small school. There is not going to be enough parking anywhere, so walk or carpool if you can.

So my advice to Johnson County Democratic caucus goers is to set your expectations appropriately and be prepared. It's important to remember that everyone, including me, is a volunteer and is legitimately trying to do their best in a tough situation.

I know sports analogies are overdone, but my dad was a coach and my Packers are in the playoffs so I'm using one. Caucus night is like game day. It's exciting and we all want the Hawks to win. But you don't expect to walk in, watch a game highlights clip, and go home. You're there for a long time, two or three hours for the caucuses. And not every play is an exciting thing like a long touchdown pass. Sometimes you're stopped at the line of scrimmage, the ref throws a flag, and you have to sit around and wait while the three refs talk among themselves and figure out the call and everyone else is confused.

And you can't expect to show up 15 minutes before kickoff and get a parking space across the street from Kinnick Stadium. Expect to walk. If you can't, make plans for a ride, and remember that your candidate has more resources for that than the county party.

And frankly, think about whether you should even do this.

My parents are in Wisconsin, not Iowa, and never miss an election. They are 85 and 84 and having more trouble moving around than they used to. I've told them: "If you lived in Iowa City 17 and had to walk four blocks from your parking place to attend a three hour meeting with 1000 people, I would tell you, don't go. Don't do that to yourself. And then I would tell you to call your legislators and tell them what you think of that process."

I'll have more to say soon about some small process changes and maybe some candidate related thoughts.

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