It happened again.
One of the least representative states in our union used caucuses, one of the worst possible voting methods, to exert disproportionate influence on determining who will be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
Iowa’s caucus system is inherently flawed and undemocratic. It not only disregards the fundamental principle of one person, one vote, it also requires all voters to publicly announce their preferred candidates, thereby denying them the right to a secret ballot, a concept central to our democracy.
But by far the most troubling aspect of Iowa’s undue influence is that the state, by multiple measures, simply does not reflect the diversity of our country and, even less so, of the Democratic Party. Iowa, over 90% Caucasian, is far whiter, more Christian and vastly more rural than the United States as a whole. And to make matters worse, the next primary is held in New Hampshire, which is whiter still.
As the first primary, Iowa holds too much sway over the elections that follow. Since 1976, nine of the 11 Iowa winners have gone on to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. But even when Iowa does not pick the ultimate nominee, it does winnow the field. Polling in Iowa significantly impacts whether a candidate can raise sufficient money and garner enough media exposure to be competitive. Imagine how different — and more diverse — the field might be if the first primary was held in South Carolina, with its significant African American population, or in any other state, such as Maryland, that more closely mirrors the demographics of the Democratic Party and the nation.
The caucus process also erects obstacles that prevent many Iowans from participating, especially the most vulnerable, rendering the already undemocratic method even less democratic. I was in Iowa during three presidential caucuses and, each time, I encountered people like the waitress working in a diner who told me she would like to participate but couldn’t get time off work. Caucuses require each voter to be physically present in a designated location for at least two hours.
In addition to ruling out early and absentee voting, this has also, in the past, automatically eliminated members of the military serving out of state and overseas, students attending out-of-state schools and Iowans living or traveling outside the United States. It’s made participation extremely challenging for night workers (especially those who depend on hourly wages), people with limited access to transportation (not all caucus locations are on bus routes), parents of young children without affordable child care, and the elderly, ill, disabled, home-bound and others who cannot venture out at night or in inclement weather. Potential voters less fluent in English also face language barriers. Of course, all these challenges disproportionately hinder voters of color, making Iowa caucuses even whiter than the state.
After the 2016 election, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) asked all 10 states using primary caucuses to switch to poll voting. All but Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming agreed. It’s not surprising that Iowa’s powers-that-be didn’t want to alter their state’s process or position: the caucuses grant Iowa far more power and attention from the candidates and also generate significant revenue.
The DNC then required those three states to each create mechanisms for absentee voting. The Iowa Democratic Party initially proposed virtual caucuses, but the DNC rejected their proposal over legitimate security concerns. Instead, for 2020, the IDP added 90 satellite caucus sites for Iowa voters across the state country and world. Yet, many potential voters were still excluded.
Even if all the aforementioned challenges were to be addressed, Iowa’s disproportionate influence still remains a problem because of the state’s demographics. With a population of just over 3 million, Iowa accounts for 1% of our country’s nearly 330 million people. Why should a small fraction of this 1% repeatedly get more say in who the Democratic nominee is than Democrats in the rest of the country?
On Monday night, the debacle in Iowa proved these points far better than I ever could. One possible solution is for the DNC to divide the country into five or six regions and hold regional voting primaries — not caucuses — in an order determined by lottery well in advance of each presidential primary season. There are other viable solutions, including determining the primary order with a lottery of all 50 states. The bottom line is the DNC needs to stand up to Iowa now and find a better, fairer and more representative way to pick our nominee well in advance of 2024.
Terry Lierman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and a former member of the DNC Executive Committee.