Delayed results raise questions about future of the caucuses

Students and community members gathered to caucus Feb. 3 in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union.

Kylee Haueter and Anna Olson

After the Iowa Democratic Party delayed releasing the of results from the 2020 Democratic caucuses, there has been talk of ending the Iowa caucuses for good.

Since Iowa’s entry into the Union in 1846, the state used the caucuses-to-convention system; however, in 1972, Iowa moved their caucuses to be placed before the New Hampshire Primary as a presidential nominating contest.

The caucus began to set a precedent as a potential way to gain support after George McGovern’s second placement propelled him into the Democratic nomination in 1972 and many thereafter.

Despite the history of the Iowa Caucuses helping with nominations for both Republican and Democratic races, there has long been conversation of these caucuses ending.

In Emory H. English’s book “The Annals of Iowa,” he said, “[C]itizens were outspoken in condemnation of the Caucus.”

This concern is still relevant after a “coding issue” in the app used for precincts to report the results of the 2020 Iowa Caucuses, delaying the public release of the results. One hundred percent of results have been released, though “inconsistencies” remain and questions are being raised as to whether the caucuses should continue to exist.

Mack Shelley, Iowa State professor and chair of the political science department, said discrepancies in the 2012 Republican caucuses and 2016 Democratic caucuses showed this voting system may not be maintained in the current era.

“Basically, there is a common perception that the Iowa caucuses are a massive amateur hour run by incompetent leadership using an archaic system built in the 19th century and incapable of being brought successfully into the 21st century,” Shelley said.

Maddie Anderson, chair of Story County Democrats, said there have always been people in opposition to the caucuses.

“There are many people who oppose the caucus because it excludes people with disabilities, shift workers and people with small children,” Anderson said. “There are always calls to abandon the caucus.”

If the Iowa caucuses were to be replaced with a primary, the state and local governments may run the election rather than the usual private, party-run events.

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union program Sunday, chair of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez said he thinks “it needs to be state election officials running elections.”

“[O]ne of the conversations we had after the 2016 election, in addition to the super-delegate reform to return power to the people, is we incentivized states to go from caucuses to primaries,” Perez said. “There were 14 states four years ago that held caucuses. Seven of them are now primary states. Iowa chose to keep their caucus status. And I think what we learned from all the mistakes that were made, and it’s undeniably unacceptable. I’m mad as hell; everybody is. And I think what we’re going to do at the end of this cycle […] is have a further conversation about whether or not state parties should be running elections.”

Sehba Faheem, a senior in biological systems engineering and president of the College Democrats at Iowa State, said the caucuses and delegate system should end.

“I would be thrilled if the caucus was replaced by a primary,” Faheem said. “Not only should we get rid of the caucus, we need to remove the entire delegate system. The person who gets the most votes should win the [nomination]. Some areas shouldn’t have more power because they have less people. Each person’s voice is equally important, and our voting system should reflect that.”

Shelley said a switch to the primary could have advantages and disadvantages.

“A primary would lead to higher turnout and, arguably, a more representative electorate compared to caucuses,” Shelley said. “The caucus system requires much more time to vote and amounts to barely organized chaos and makes it very difficult for people to participate who work or have classes that evening or who have other impediments to participating, such as child care or elder care or a major disability. On the other hand, caucuses do provide the opportunity to exchange ideas and engage in political discussions that are illegal if you are waiting in line to vote in a primary.”

Despite the potential of the caucus being replaced for a primary, Shelley said that regardless of the frustration of the national parties and the overwhelming amount of field day bashing from the media, there still could be a chance of Iowa going first, even if there is a change to a primary.

“This well may be a tipping point against Iowa’s first in the nation status, but I think both major parties also regard Iowa as a relatively inexpensive testing ground for campaigns and ideas that might resonate in the national election,” Shelley said. “Without major demographic and structural economic change, it is difficult to address the arguments that Iowa is too rural and too white non-Hispanic to be representative.”

Ryan Hurley, a sophomore in pre-business and President of the College Republicans at Iowa State, said Iowa should continue going first.

“I think Iowa going first is very much a good thing; we can go either way electorally, and it allows smaller candidates to advertise much more effectively than primaries starting in California or a national primary day,” Hurley said. “Iowans have the right mindset to be first.”

Faheem said the order should be switched.

“Presidential candidates are here to serve the entire United States,” Faheem said. “They should not rise to next-door-neighbors status with some states while bypassing others. This is not an equal system. There needs to be serious reform to how our campaigns are run so that they reflect the whole nation. Perhaps this means switching which state goes first; maybe a few states should go first all at the same time. I don’t have the answers, but I know that the current system is not working.”

Anderson said despite any talk of order and whether the caucus will be existent, there are laws in place that will make the switch more complicated.

“New Hampshire state law requires that it be the first primary in the nation. Iowa state law requires that our caucus be first in the nation,” Anderson said.

Shelley said if the caucuses are taken away due to the problems that have occurred recently, it could make a big impact on the state.

“Iowa represents just six out of 538 electoral votes (1.11 percent) and has only 0.95% of the nation’s population,” Shelley said. “If it becomes little more than the proverbial “fly-over” state, the economic impact from the caucuses and earlier political activity is going to be severely reduced, and Iowa will never again play a prominent role in politics, will lose its media attention, and its self-image likely will suffer.”