Friday, July 16, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 5: Friendly (?) Advice

Because I'm openly in favor of ending the caucuses and going to a primary, even if it costs Iowa First, I've been persona non grata at Iowa Democratic Party headquarters since the Dvorsky Administration. It was worst while Andy McGuire was chair, when I was very pointedly and publicly excluded from a caucus review committee, even when they re-opened it to add more members. I'm well aware that the 2016 committee was a Remain Calm, All Is Well sham, but excluding me was still a slap in the face.

Actual footage of caucus sign in at Iowa City Precinct 17.

So for the last few years, since I'm not allowed behind closed doors and no one ever reaches out to me, I've had to make my case in public. I don't have a lot of followers, but I know that the people who do hear what I say are people who matter in this process.

I've know new IDP chair Ross Wilburn a long time, back before his Iowa City mayor days, and I like him. I know he's reasonable, but I also know he has to deal with a certain set of expectations regarding First. So I'm still going public here, but I look forward to talking with anyone who will listen.

So here's my suggestions for how we can improve the caucuses, in decreasing order of severity. 

Have a primary.

I won't go too deep into that here, especially since that would require legislation and bipartisan cooperation, and the Republicans have no interest in changing the process. But the bottom line is, a primary is a more democratic process than a caucus. We need to talk about this and we need to stop the denial. 

Even if the Iowa political/media establishment will not give up First and the caucuses willingly, we need to prepare for the likelihood that it will be taken from us. At some point soon, the DNC is going to ban caucuses, and we will need to adapt. In fact, assuming President Biden runs again, a re-election year when the stakes in the nomination contest are low would be the best opportunity for the DNC to make that change.

I'd like to see legislative Democrats make an actual effort to go along and introduce primary legislation, even though, given the Republican trifecta and their party's commitment to not changing the caucuses, it would be doomed to fail. Still, I  would like us to be national team players.

Maybe you could still have a small, off-year style caucus for party business. I don't really care. I've long argued that the whole platform process should be abolished, because it's not binding on candidates and officials and thus, to me, meaningless. And in other states, the delegates and party committee members are either slated by the campaigns or appear on the primary ballot itself. You can argue about those things if you want - but presidential preference should be handled in the most democratic way possible.

The math is easier with a primary, too.

But I'm not just about "have a primary." If we are going to have a 2024 caucus, which I expect even if the DNC bans caucuses, I want a better caucus. So let's keep improving...

Put the needs of ordinary voters first, not the needs of the political and media elite.

Who cares about first? 

The bipartisan political elite - the inner circle of activists and the next circle out who love the attention and the selfies and the big names at small county fundraisers and the personal phone calls from senators. And the state news media who love to play out their national anchor fantasies. That's a big part of why the state media downplays anti-caucus views.

I know how much losing First would cost these elites, because I'm one of them.  I know that losing First means we will never see a presidential candidate again. And I'm not going to argue that my adopted home state should not be first.

But most Normal People do not care about First. They don't attend candidate events. They don't meet candidates. Regular people have busy lives and busy schedules outside of politics. They just want to vote, and we should give them what they want.

Stop caring about what New Hampshire thinks. 

F🤬🤬k New Hampshire. It's not 1984 anymore and New Hampshire is not our friend. We need to plan a nomination process that works best for Iowans, and not worry about what a vain and self-important official in another state is going to do.

I don't see any scenario where we keep First. But let's say by some lightning strikes chance that we do. If we make a change to our nomination process that benefits Iowans, and the DNC OKs it, then we've played by the rules. Then if the New Hampshire Secretary of State says "nope, that's a primary," and moves ahead of us, then it's New Hampshire breaking the rules and New Hampshire that should be sanctioned.

(When we lose First, which we will, I want New Hampshire to die with us.)

In that regard:

Absentee Ballots. REAL absentee ballots, pre-printed with candidate names, that you can mark in secret at home. 

We are the party of voting rights. Every election cycle  we push voters to get their vote in early, fill out ABRs or come to an early voting site.

Except on caucus night, when we insist you show up. And some people just can't.

We need absentee ballots for the sake of fairness and access, and we need absentee ballots to get people out of our most overcrowded caucus rooms. This is the best and fairest solution for rank and file non-activist Iowans.

Virtual Caucus 2.0.

It's ra-a-aaaain on your wedding day ironic that just months after Iowa Democrat's phone-in "Virtual Caucus" was shot down as a "security risk," the entire world adapted overnight to virtual meetings - including the Democratic Party, which held virtual conventions from the local to the national level. A Zoom-trained world might be more ready to handle some sort of virtual caucus. It won't work for everyone, but it's better than nothing. Real absentees are better - but if for some reason that's not an option, Virtual Caucus 2.0 is worth reconsidering.

One person one vote. 

As I've been pointing out for years, Iowa's complicated "state delegate equivalent" formula that allocates delegates by county based on past general election voting skews the results. It undercounts high turnout, high growth, increasingly blue counties, and rewards low turnout, population losing, increasingly red counties. In 2020, Johnson County had 12.3% of statewide Democratic caucus attendance, but only got 7.7% of the state convention delegates.

The convoluted math formula is one of the things the rest of the nation, the press especially, hates the most about Iowa. It's time to end it. We need to lose all the state delegate equivalent crap and just report the vote totals. Base the national delegates on one person, one vote at the congressional district level that the DNC allocates delegates.

That's what the public wants, that's what the press wants, that's what everybody except a tiny handful of small county caucus activists wants. 

If the small counties don't like it, they can do what Johnson County does and show up.

Any absentee process needs to be counted on an equal basis as in-person attendance.

Before the DNC, out of the blue, banned Virtual Caucus, IDP had made a decision that the phone-in process would only count for 10% of the delegate allocation, no matter how many people attended. That was even though up to a third of caucus goers were interested in the option - I think in the end, as word got out, it would have been much higher.

As I was meeting with organizers, I learned that every campaign was downplaying Virtual Caucus, because it "counted less." I argued loudly against it and it's still unacceptable.

I was never able to figure out the math on satellite caucuses, the absentee plan that IDP had to pull off the shelf when Virtual Caucus was killed. I had enough other stuff I was doing. But it was also not weighted 1:1 with in person attendance. 

If absentees aren't counted equally, people won't use them and will continue to show up at the most overcrowded sites...

Overcrowding needs to be taken seriously.

I have been telling higher ups since at least 2008 that the overcrowding in my county was at crisis levels. This concern has been repeatedly and consistently dismissed by IDP. At one time we were directly told, "that's just a Johnson County problem."

Which does not solve the problem.

754 people at my Iowa City Precinct 5 caucus.

Unfortunately, IDP has put the demands of rural counties first here. They insist that mandatory meeting attendance is critical, because otherwise they will be unable to fill their committees. It's possible that one size does not fit all here - but our problem, and the problem in some precincts in other metro counties, is that we literally cannot fit everyone who wants to attend into the biggest room in or near the precinct.

It's simply not possible to conduct a meaningful process, which is designed for 30 people in a living room, when you have crowds of 500, 600, 700... up to 945 in our biggest precinct in 2016. And since we're already in the biggest rooms that exist, the only solution is to get some bodies out of the rooms. Which is also important because...

90% of attendees do not want to be at a meeting. Give them what they want.

Everyone has seen this every caucus cycle: the moment the delegate allocation is locked in, the overwhelming majority of people leave. The crowd dwindles down to the same 30 people who would have been in the living room in 1976, and who will be at the governor year caucus in 2022.

At my 2016 caucus, 430 people crammed into and overflowed a room meant for 200. As soon as I announced the delegate count, 400 left.

Why are we making those 400 people stay for two hours? They're not interested in the platform or the central committee or "party building." They want to vote and go home. Let them. If you are not going to have absentees, and are going to insist on in-person attendance, give people the option of voting at sign-in and leaving.

Literally every person I have talked to who has attended both a Democratic and a Republican caucus prefers the Republican process. You sign in, you vote, you leave if you want. We can probably streamline it even more as I'll explain below.

If we are going to insist on doing this the hard way, we need buy-in from all the key institutions in the state, by law if necessary.

Let's say all my suggestions above are rejected and the IDP is going to continue to require mass in person attendance at a long meeting, we need all hands on deck, and I don't just mean all Democrats or all political people. This is civics. not politics.

We need to stop everything else in the state that night. We need every large indoor space. I've worked on this for years and it's hard. Some publicly funded locations who are on paper required to offer space have found ways to refuse, or provide sub-optimal spaces. Usually the claim is that school events take precedence. My interpretation of the code is that "shall provide" means shall provide, not "may provide unless there's a ball game or choir practice," but we've never had time to test that in court.

We could clear that up in the law. We need to require the schools, pre-K through grad school, to cancel all classes, events, games, and practices and open their doors at no charge. (This has been proposed in legislation that hasn't advanced.) We need to strongly encourage the churches to do the same and we need to work across the aisle to make sure parishioners of one party don't scream at the pastor for letting the other party have a meeting space. Stores and non-essential services need to shut down so people can attend. Absentees would be better, but if we're rejecting that because oh noes, it might make New Hampshire mad, then we need this.

Stop giving lip service to accessibility, especially child care.

We're the state of Tom Harkin, the father of the ADA, but when it comes to caucus night we treat accessibility as an inconvenient box to check off. It's expensive and impractical, but by rights every site should have a sound system, a sign interpreter, adequate parking, and unblocked entrances. I think my county did better this time, but we had a long way to go. And of course nothing is truly accessible when 700 people are in the room. 

Accessibility also includes child care. But even if there is sufficient space for a Kid Room on site,  who's going to leave their kid with J. Random Volunteer? Do it the simple way: just give people who need child care the money to pay their regular provider (and give those providers absentee ballots - or, hear me out, just give the parent the absentee ballot in the first place).

Give the locals money.

All those space rentals and disability accommodations we mentioned cost money. We managed, but it was a big expense and luckily we're a big rich county. But we had four figure rental bills for some sites. Once you get up over the size of a grade school gym, space is rare and expensive. As for smaller counties, budgets are one of the reasons some of these items get short shrift.

If the state party is going to insist on continuing this difficult and expensive process instead of supporting a tax funded primary election, and if the state party is going to refuse to let us have absentee ballots and force us to book large venues, then the state party should pay for sites and sound systems and other necessities, not locals.

(Also: End the old school legal publication in a dead tree newspaper requirement. It's the 21st century. Post it on line. The print papers should be running the list of sites as a community service anyway.)

Expand the use of out of precinct volunteers.

Some precincts have a surplus of activists, while others just don't have a person who can handle running a caucus. We had a very limited program in 2020, which was kind of a holdover from the canceled Virtual Caucus: Local parties were allowed to name one chair and one secretary per precinct from outside the precinct. That's why my wife and I caucused in a campus precinct rather than where we live - we had a student chair, but he was a rookie and wanted help, so we were "chair" and "secretary" on paper until the caucus elected the real chair.

For that matter, assuming we have a one person one vote system (which we should) and assuming we are still requiring in person attendance (which we shouldn't), just let people caucus at any precinct in the county. If you have to be present to vote, you can't be in two places at once. People could avoid known overcrowded places and go someplace with more space and better parking. (Of course, every precinct in our county is overcrowded, but they could go someplace less bad.)

Make the "preference cards" more intuitive.

I knew this was going to happen as soon as I saw them: 

You're really going to give a person who has waited in line an hour something that looks like a ballot, and that a reasonable person not versed in the nuanced history of Iowa vs. New Hampshire would call a "ballot," and then tell them, "don't mark it yet"? 

You're really going to tell people that if they spell "Butigeieieiegegegeg" wrong you have to spoil your ballot - oops, preference card? You're really going to tell people "Mayor Pete" or "Bernie" doesn't count?

You're really going to expect a person managing the chaos of a 300 person mob to carefully log all of that?

Here's how we should have done it: 

"Welcome to the caucus. Here's your ballot. Write your first choice on side one. Do you have a second choice? Side two. Do you want to stay for the platform and stuff? No? OK, you can go home now. Thanks for voting."  

That would make us more like a Republican caucus. And literally every independent-swing-go-where-the-interesting-contest-is voter who I have ever spoken to who has attended both a Democratic and a Republican caucus likes the GOP process better and expects that kind of process: Show up, vote a secret ballot, leave right away. 

Vote-and-leave at the sign in table would also mean not everyone would have to cram into the room at the same time, so you could get by with smaller spaces.

Accept that many supporters of non-viable candidates do not want to make a second choice, and make the math easier.

This one is really small, but turned into a big deal in one of our precincts.

Under caucus rules, at final delegate allocation, you divide attendees in the viable groups by the grand total of attendees, and because you can't have a fractional delegate, you round up or down based on largest remainders. The problem with that formula is, some of the original attendees are not in viable preference groups. Some people go home, and others refuse to realign.

In the past, to make any choice at all, you had to stick around until final alignment was done. Sure, a handful of people still left, but not a statistically huge share. 

It became a much larger issue in 2020 because we began reporting the first alignment vote totals. Many, many, many supporters of non-viable candidates considered that first alignment number, not the Delegate Equivalents, to be their real vote, and having expressed their support decided to leave. IDP did not anticipate this.

We had some problems with the caucus manuals.

 The problem is, when more than a delegate's worth of people leave, the math breaks. You end up not allocating all your delegates and having to round up three or even four times. Here's the math in our problem precinct:

Delegates 11  
Total attendance 395             Delegates
Candidate A 138 3.8430
Candidate B 107 2.9797
Candidate C 104 2.8962
left or did not realign 46  

Viability was 60 people, but in this 11 delegate precinct, 36 people were 1/11 or a delegate worth, and  46 people left or did not realign.

Following the written instructions, our team - a good, smart team including an elected official -  rounded up the largest remaining fraction - three times, for all three remaining viable candidates - and still had allocated only 10 of their 11 delegates. There was no guidance on what to do when you had already rounded up all the viable candidates, and still had delegate(s) left to allocate. They called for help, sat on hold for an hour, got bad advice, and eventually got attacked after the fact by the campaigns and the national press. "Never again," says the elected official.

Change the rules for a simple solution: Instead of using total, beginning of the night attendance, divide the number of people in each preference group by the number of people still in attendance and in viable preference groups. Here's how that would work in our problem precinct.

Delegates 11  
Remaining attendance 349
Candidate A 138 4.3496
Candidate B 107 3.3725
Candidate C 104 3.2779

(For our purposes, "remaining attendance" means "in viable groups." There may or may not have been a Candidate D supporter who refused to realign but was sticking around for platform.)

Here, we only have to round up once to give the 11th delegate to Candidate B. That gives you a fair ratio of delegates and support, while not requiring multiple rounds of rounding.

Let people realign at the higher level conventions.

By the time of our district and state (virtual) conventions, my caucus night candidate had dropped out. I wanted to support our nominee, Joe Biden. But I was not allowed to change my preference. 

From the beginning of time through 2016, delegates were allowed to change preference at the different levels of convention, but in 2020, for vague reasons that supposedly had something to do with First, we changed. Changing back won't affect many people, but will go a long way toward unity.

Go rogue.

Johnson County gets screwed in every possible way at caucus time. We have to manage our massive turnout with a process that's designed for small counties, yet we are not rewarded for that turnout because the delegate math also favors small counties. Since we can't change the formula, maybe we just have to go rogue.


If the state party won't let us do any of these things I suggest, and we go into another contested nomination cycle with the present system and present calendar, and if the state party is still making the locals pay for the venues... 

...then we need to vote people at the sign in table. If we can't have absentee ballots, there's no other way we'll be able to fit into the rooms.

"Welcome to the caucus. Here's your ballot. Write your first choice on side one. Do you have a second choice? Side two. Do you want to stay for the platform and stuff? No? OK, you can go home now. Thanks for voting."

That will no doubt mean a credentials fight at the district and state conventions, with the small counties and with whichever presidential campaign would benefit by throwing out our delegates. That's a fight worth having - I dare them to throw out the best Democratic county in the state. 

And if the DNC bans caucuses and/or moves Iowa out of the early state carve-out, but Iowa has a rogue caucus anyway (because the GOP legislature won't authorize a primary), how can the rest of the state attack Johnson or other big counties for breaking rules?

If we decide to make our own rules which will work better for our crowds and more importantly our voters, that fight will require some solidarity within Johnson County, and with the other big counties that are negatively affected.


This system is broken. I hope that this week I've stated my case clearly. I've invested a lot of thinking and time, both in this and in making the caucuses happen - and I feel like that thought and that work has earned an equally thoughtful and serious response from IDP and from state leaders in general. You know where to find me.

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