Democracy 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.”
I Caucused in Iowa and Everything Was Fine, Until It Wasn’t
You never would have known that night was going to end in disaster from inside that room
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.