Dems may finally fix un-democratic Iowa caucuses

The Democrats’ process for picking their presidential nominee in 2020 may be significantly more democratic than it’s been in previous years.

The most important change on the table: fixing the Iowa caucuses, whose hyper-restrictive rules would draw charges of voter suppression if they were used for a general election.

At a meeting in Washington, D.C. Friday and Saturday, a panel of the Democratic National Committee endorsed a slew of reforms aimed at expanding access to the nominating process and bolstering faith in the result. It’s a response to the acrimonious Clinton-Sanders battle last year, which many Sanders backers have denounced as rigged.

The proposed changes would go into effect if approved by a rules committee and then by the party’s 400 voting members. But as the product of a deliberative process with input from both Sanders- and Clinton-backing factions, they appear to have broad support.

Perhaps most far-reaching is a requirement that all caucuses allow voters to cast absentee ballots, and that they release raw vote totals. Another reform would require that state primaries and caucuses allow people to register as Democrats on the day of the contest. The committee also wants to effectively scrap 60 percent of all super-delegates — the party insiders who are allowed to support their preferred candidate at the convention, rather than being bound by the will of voters.

All those changes were sought by Sanders supporters. In New York’s primary last year, many would-be Sanders voters found themselves shut out because they weren’t registered Democrats. New York requires registered independents to switch their affiliation to the Democrat party a full six months before the Democratic primary if they want to vote in it. Sanders also backers complained that the existence of super-delegates gave Clinton a leg up, though she also got more votes from rank-and-file Democrats.

But it’s the absentee ballot requirement that has the potential to right the most egregiously anti-democratic facet of the nominating process.

Iowa’s caucuses are pivotal, because they’re the first state nominating contest each cycle. Currently, participants must show up in person on a specific evening, and to stay for the entire roughly three-hour process. That shuts out many Iowa Democrats — those who work evenings, those with young kids who can’t find childcare, the elderly and disabled who have trouble leaving home — and likely skews the caucuses toward whiter, wealthier Iowans.

Imagine if, in order to vote on election day, everyone had to show up at one specific time, then wait in a three-hour line. And there was no early or absentee voting.

“Obviously we want to make sure that if you’re a shift worker you can vote in a caucus,” DNC chair Tom Perez said at the outset of the meeting. “We want to make sure a member of the military or someone else who’s been left out of the process — that you can vote, that you can make sure your franchise is exercised.”

Releasing raw vote totals would be a big step forward, too. Iowa’s Democratic caucuses use a complex process in which voters divide up according to the candidate they support, then must pick another candidate if their first choice doesn’t meet a certain level of support. Any candidate who doesn’t get at least 15 percent support at a given caucus automatically receives no statewide delegates from that caucus. (The Republicans use a much simpler one-person one-vote process).

That makes it impossible to know which candidate actually had the support of more participants, leading to claims last year from Sanders supporters that Clinton’s narrow victory in the caucuses was undeserved.

Of course, none of the proposed reforms address the problem that the first two contests are in overwhelmingly white states, even though nearly half of Democratic voters are non-white. That will have to wait for 2024, at the earliest.

Photo via Creative Commons

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