The Iowa Caucuses Are Going to Be a F*cking Nightmare

There will be new rules and new confusion for America’s favorite insane democratic process

Illustration: Agnes Ricart

DDemocracy begins in a messy place, and that place is Iowa. At their core, the Iowa caucuses are a fleshy meeting, voting with your body in a school auditorium where it smells like skin and floor wax. There’s hesitant counting and shuffling, passive-aggressive threats to get in line, more huffing and shushing, and confusion.

This was most evident during the 2016 caucuses. At more than a dozen sites, delegates were decided by coin flips, sites were overcrowded, and vote counts were mixed up and transposed. Some sites didn’t check places of residence for caucusgoers, and there are still looming questions about the accuracy of voter registration across the state. In the past four years, the Democratic Party has rolled out new rules to fix all these problems — and in doing so, they’ve made a confusing process even more confusing.

The Iowa caucuses are exclusionary by design. The first caucuses were gatherings of party members who’d elect delegates to pick a candidate at the conventions. In the 1850s, as Iowa adjusted to its new statehood, the caucuses were organized by party bosses who packed the rooms with supporters for their candidates — and, more importantly, made sure their opponents couldn’t attend. “A typical ruse to attract voters from a regularly called party caucus was to organize a competing event,” explains a 1943 article from the Annals of Iowa. “In a north Iowa county, the ‘fortunate’ burning of an old shed on the outskirts of a small town at exactly the advertised hour of the holding of the caucus attracted nine-tenths of the people of the village.”

Previously, these haphazard meetings came in the spring. There was a push to change the system in 1907, and on April 10, 1916, Iowa held a Democratic primary. But no one cared, and it was expensive, so they moved back to the caucus system.

The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago forever changed the public perception of how we choose our elected representatives. Race riots and Vietnam protests led Mayor Richard Daley to send the police to use force against civilians. Inside the convention hall, Daley and his political cronies pressured the Democratic delegates to vote for Herbert Humphrey — a process that wasn’t all that different from previous years except that this time, it was caught on camera. When America saw the reality of democracy, things had to change.

All of this adds up to a complex web of democratic fuckery that astounds and hurts the brain.

So in 1972, new rules were established. Iowa, because of the time it took to process the caucus paperwork by mimeograph, moved its caucus to February, making it the first in the nation. In 1976, a relatively unknown peanut farmer from Georgia came to the state without a lot of money. Jimmy Carter shook hands, kissed babies, won the caucuses and eventually the presidency — and, in the process, put Iowa on the electoral map. Suddenly, people began to pay attention to the state. In 2008, an Illinoisan followed Carter’s example — standing on some hay bales, sweating at the state fair, holding rallies in middle schools — and went on to become our first black president. It felt like democracy to some people: You, too, could come to Iowa, and if you were willing to break in some shoe leather and practice a warm and welcoming smile, maybe you could become president too.

But caucusing is still a messy process. It happens in locations that are not always accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In large precincts, gyms, church sanctuaries, school auditoriums, and town halls are filled with people; the rooms can be warm, even suffocating. The caucuses begin at 7 p.m. on a weeknight and can take hours to complete, making them almost impossible to attend for those who are single parents — heck, any kind of parents — disabled, suffering from chronic illnesses, older, without cars, poor, night workers, or anyone who speaks English as a second language. Party officials still try to pack the caucuses with their favored supporters; in 2016, I remember busloads of Bernie Sanders supporters entering my precinct a few minutes before the caucuses began.

Something had to change, but Iowa can’t switch to a primary without starting a war with New Hampshire, which has the first-in-the-nation primary and definitely wants to keep it that way. (Their state motto is “Live free or die,” so who wants to piss off those people?) Messing with the order threatens the power and influence of people whose power rests on a broken system.

So this year, the Iowa Democratic Party tried to make some new rules to fix a bad thing, keep its power, and also make New Hampshire happy at all costs. There are new rules for the caucus that try to give it oversight and accountability without actually changing anything. And guess what? It’s going to be a fucking mess.

II am a journalist and writer who lives in Iowa, and it’s my job to write about politics in this state. I know the Iowa caucuses are confusing as hell. Every four years, news outlets write lengthy explainers to clarify the process of alignment (when people gather into groups for their first-choice candidate) and realignment (when you get in new groups because the first group didn’t have enough people). These groups are tallied by headcount. There’s no official count for the first alignment and no paper trail. Every election cycle, there are a lot of stories and a lot of frustration but not much that people want to admit to out loud.

So when I heard there were going to be new rules for the 2020 caucuses, I looked up the new training and started working my way through the online module, which the Iowa Democratic Party chair promised was a “rigorous” training. Some of the slides included outlines on how to set up chairs and signage. But then, when we got to the new rules and the math, things didn’t make quite as much sense. So I started over. I was trying to understand the caucus math, the smartphone app rules, and the three different counts. And then, I had to call a precinct captain — and then another. And then, for good measure, I talked to two more. None of them wanted to go on record. So it was just me and an online training course. Here’s what I learned about our new and improved, totally insane democratic process:

  1. There are new satellite caucuses, whose goal is to make the caucus process more accessible. Some will be held earlier in the day. Some will be held at nursing homes or college campuses. Some will also be held in Arizona, Florida, France, and the Republic of Georgia for Iowans living out of state. Very cool, very accessible.
  2. There is also a new viability threshold, and that threshold is 15%. If you gather into a corner for a candidate and the group has 15% of attendees at your meeting site, you no longer get to move. This is a huge change from the previous years when an individual or group could move during alignment. This is also going to be a problem because many seasoned caucusgoers like to align as “undecided” before switching to their second choice. If this happens, “undecided” (who is polling at 45%) could win delegates if people align “undecided” and that group is viable. A friend of mine is so mad about this rule that she’s considering realigning even if her first group is viable. “What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” she said. This is Iowan anarchy.
  3. There are new presidential preference cards. Don’t call them “ballots” — New Hampshire will shit some maple syrup, and it will be horrible — but “preference cards.” Everyone fills out the first side with their first preference. If you realign, you fill out the back of your card with your second preference. And if you live in some sort of nightmare on February 3 — which frankly we are all in at every moment of the day — there could be a second alignment, so there is a small space for that third choice on the card as well. These cards have to be handed out by the precinct captain and gathered by this same person. Imagine you have hundreds of people caucusing at your precinct. This is your Democracy, America.
  4. To avoid the dreaded coin flip, there are math worksheets (yay?) and a phone app (neat!) to help decide the delegates. But okay, say you live in Whitesonian, Iowa (not a real place), and you have five delegates and 100 people come to caucus — and they divide into five groups of 20? What then? The answer: Draw from a deck of cards, and the highest value wins.
  5. Back to those presidential preference cards for a second. This is the first time there will be an official first count, then a second count, then an official count of who won the delegates (which is hopefully whoever
    has the most caucus-goers but you know how Democracy works or
    doesn’t). The numbers haven’t been reported like this before and this
    makes it possible for three different candidates to come out of the
    caucuses claiming a win. Considering how big of a giant baby tantrum
    the Sanders campaign threw after 2016, well, get ready for some fun.
  6. Oh, and don’t forget that there has been absolutely no information about the security of the smartphone app. So that seems safe.

All of this adds up to a complex web of democratic fuckery that astounds and hurts the brain. The former mayor of Lonetree called the caucuses “Rube Goldberg in a blender.” The sum total of all of this change, along with a field that has four candidates bunched within a few percentage points could lead to a caucus where many candidates claim a win. Add in your weirdly authoritative conspiracy tweet threads from random people on Twitter and a pundit class that spent all of 2016 fanning itself on porches over Her Emails™ and is now thirsty for controversy, and you have a system that needs and wants to be better but is so trapped by its own power and influence that it can’t change. And what’s more American than that?

Author of God Land. Columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The book Belabored is forthcoming from Bold Type Books in August of 2020.

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