After the controversial Iowa caucuses, Iowans debate on whether the caucus system should be preserved. (Jocelyn Harte)
After the controversial Iowa caucuses, Iowans debate on whether the caucus system should be preserved.

Jocelyn Harte

Head to Head: Should America Keep the Caucuses?

February 10, 2020

Get Rid of Caucuses

The Iowa caucus occurred on Monday, and from the beginning organizers attempted to convince caucus goers that the process had been streamlined, and would occur more smoothly and quicker than past years. Caucus cards would provide a paper trail in case of errors, and voters would only be required to stay at the caucus site for the first round of grouping if their candidate was viable. However, after heading home and looking at returns, I and everyone else realized that this was sadly not true: the Iowa caucuses were, once again, a voting debacle. An app–which many precinct leaders had not been trained how to use–malfunctioned, and Iowans were left to wait for results for another 24 hours. 

The Iowa caucus and its first-in-the-nation status have been an important facet of the nomination process since the 1800’s, when the caucus system was first developed. Originally deemed a “gathering of neighbors,” the caucuses were a chance for those still undecided about which candidate to choose to deliberate about policy, values, and match-ups against the opposite party’s candidate(s). Delegates for each respective candidate would be given half an hour to try and convince their neighbors of the merit of their chosen candidate. At the conclusion of this attempt at persuasion, final decisions would be made, and caucus-goers would group themselves by candidate for counting. 

This process of counting is where the fundamental issue of caucuses arises. For many precincts, caucusing locations can house over a thousand voters—all in one room. Not only does the combined body heat push already pent up voters to greater anger at their disagreeing party members, the counting and recounting of moving people can take multiple hours. At the conclusion of the caucus, those who decided to participate often feel bitter at the wasted hours they spent casting a single vote. Furthermore, the time spent in the stifling and muggy heat of high school gyms could’ve been spent completing the duties imperative to many families’ smooth functioning. 

The counting aspect of caucuses also entirely rules out absentee voting. In turn, this completely eliminates the possibility of another demographic exercising their right to vote: those working night shifts. Unable to spend three hours voting when their livelihood and job is at stake, many choose to skip their local caucuses entirely. It is unfair to rule out a group of people who often represent low-paying jobs; this only plays into the Iowa caucuses’ faux sense of representing the nation’s vote. These reductions in potential voters have a tangible effect: in the 2016 election, Iowans caucused at a rate of only 15.7 percent among all eligible voters. This is almost half of the countrywide primary voting rate, which stood at 28.5 percent.

Caucusing is not without its benefits. The discussion aspect, although incredibly time-consuming, is a fundamental aspect of democracy which dates back to the governmental form’s conception in the pillared floors of Ancient Greece’s legislature. Some voters are not exposed to different viewpoints due to the confirmation bias they unknowingly perpetrate within their daily lives, and can radically change their choice in candidates in minutes. Based on the new information each candidates’ delegate can provide, many important decisions can be made: only 40% of caucusgoers have made up their mind about their preferred candidate when arriving at their caucusing location. Talking to people around us about issues personal to us, which we often neglect, contributes greatly to the scope of our political understanding. We are all living in the same country, and deliberation can be an invaluable step towards understanding issues which aren’t within our own lives. 

Despite these improvements, primaries’ convenience and their ability to allow a much greater pool of prospective voters to participate in their constitutionally given right make them the superior voting method. Increasing voter turnout to its maximum is vastly more representative of a true democracy, and should not be supplanted by conversations that are more often arguments than the eureka moments some caucusing proponents claim them to be. While last-minute information can be incredibly important, it is our duty to make decisions based on our ability to appraise candidates based on the information we have dutifully gathered over the months before the caucuses, not frantic vote persuasion within the “undecided” section of each respective caucusing location. 

The abysmal voter turnout and inefficiency of caucusing cannot be ignored. Too many Iowans are immediately left out of the process, and votes are invalidated before they could ever be cast. The counting process is unnecessarily slow and creates strife about the invaluable power we carry to cast our votes for the candidate we believe is best suited to win the general election. The Iowa caucuses should be switched to a primary, as it would enable the most democratic appointment of the Iowan people’s most popular candidate. 


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Keep Caucuses

In the age of Trump, there has been a lack of political accountability. People are embarrassed to admit they belong to a political minority or share bigoted views. If you’re not a vocal supporter of a candidate, chances are you’re keeping your vote a secret, which there’s often a reason behind. While everyone has the right to keep their vote secret, it allows people to vote for bad politicians with no accountability. This is why caucuses are important.

Standing in a room with dozens to hundreds of your fellow party members, neighbors, and friends watching, causes voters to have to own up to who they vote for. When you’re aware that people you know will see who you vote for, it means you’re forced to bear more responsibility for which candidate you choose. If someone is embarrassed of their political views, they’re likely not good ones; this means they’ll be more likely to be swayed to a more respectable candidate. 

However, it’s not only people watching you that results in people switching between candidates. Discussion is one of the most important aspects of the caucuses, and what makes them so interesting. Before you vote, you have the opportunity to engage in political discussion with those you know, which is often deemed inappropriate or simply refrained from. This is another great way to see what your neighbors’ views are, keeping each other accountable. This discussion can do more than keep each other accountable, however. It allows people to have time to convince each other to vote for the other candidate. While some may deem this unproductive, in an era of immense political polarization, where even within party lines, there is immense conflict, this is one of the only times fellow party members can listen to one another. For people with varying political beliefs, it’s rare for people to listen to each other these days. The caucuses allow for that discussion, and allow for people to listen to each other; that’s the point of the entire night. While the Democratic party is divided as ever, hopefully, moving forward from the caucuses, at least Iowa Democrats can feel a stronger sense of unity. The discussion and accountability a public vote brings forward is an attempt at keeping the corrupt world of politics honest, keeping the politicians themselves accountable as well. 

While many are against the fact that Iowa is the first in the nation to vote in the primary, it forces presidential candidates to focus on a part of the nation they are quick to forget once they’re voted into office. Rural states like Iowa make up the entire central area of the United States, however, Presidents are quick to forget about their nation’s food providers. The caucuses, while only every four years, are a way to force politicians to remember the often forgotten states. While yes, it does result in quite a bit of overrepresentation for a heavily white and rural state, it’s a rare representation that the state still needs. 

While, yes, there are some inefficiencies regarding the caucuses, there are solutions. It is true that it is difficult for those who are disabled to be able to caucus, however, due to the American Disability Act, their caucus sites should be accessible. Furthermore, while childcare is a large issue, children are allowed to hang around various public caucus sites, such as the Iowa City Public Library, or South East Junior High; and the Warren campaign even provided free childcare on caucus night this year. 

The caucuses are controversial. For a primarily white state that nobody cares about to get national attention every four years is odd, to say the least. But the caucuses are important. They may be inefficient, but they can be improved. There’s now satellite caucusing, even in Paris. There are drawbacks, but they’re worth it for the necessary discussion and conversations they spark amongst neighbors. 

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