The Iowa Democratic Party took an important step Monday toward modernizing the Iowa Caucuses with what party leaders say are the most significant changes in nearly 50 years.
The change that got the biggest headline was the party's new proposal to hold a half dozen “virtual” caucuses next year, which will give people who can’t attend the regular caucuses at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2020, a chance to take part.
This proposal to allow attendance using a phone or mobile device answers some of the criticism that the caucuses shut out people who work second shift or otherwise can’t make it to the regular event.
We don’t expect it will quiet the caucuses’ most fiery critics, though. This still isn't a primary (by design), which allows people a larger window of time to vote. And there is no guarantee the votes of the people who caucus "virtually" will be worth as much as those who show up on Feb. 3. The new proposal allocates only 10 percent of delegates to virtual caucuses.
For those who don’t like the arcane caucus rules that already don’t strictly follow the one-person-one-vote principle, this will probably be a point of criticism. But we think it is a credible attempt at including people who can’t show up in person.
Having said that, we do wonder if the 10 percent allocation is a bit too low. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told us that some thought 10 percent was too high. He called it a good place to start. Our concern is if an extraordinarily high number of people attend the virtual caucuses, that will just perpetuate criticisms that the caucuses are fundamentally undemocratic.
We also think the new plan to create a paper trail is a much overdue step toward accountability. Anybody who has attended a caucus, particularly busy ones, knows there is a certain amount of chaos. That doesn’t exactly establish confidence votes are being counted or reported accurately.
The Democrats' new plan will keep a record of the votes cast, and the raw totals will be released.
This plan does increase accountability, but it also has some potential landmines.
Historically, the party has not released these totals. After all, the currency of the caucuses has always been “state delegate equivalents,” which are allocated by precinct according to the amount of support a candidate receives. That doesn't necessarily correspond directly to the initial support a candidate gets, however. The party requires that a candidate receive at least 15 percent of the votes at most individual precincts in order to be considered viable. If that doesn't happen, that candidate's supporters are split up among other candidates or an undecided group in a process called realignment.
(Republicans conduct a simple straw poll at their caucuses.)
Under this new system, the Democratic Party will still report the number of state delegate equivalents for each candidate. But the party also will report the total number of votes a candidate received at the initial stage of the caucus, as well as after realignment.
We think this is a worthy step toward transparency and accountability. Recall, after the 2016 caucuses — when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders finished in a near-tie in state delegate equivalents — the Sanders camp demanded that raw vote totals be released. They weren’t.
In 2020, this will be done. But it does raise the question: What metric will now be used to declare the winner? It is conceivable that one candidate might have the most state delegate equivalents, but another might come out on top in the number of overall supporters.
That could have the potential to create confusion as the news media report the results. Or as campaigns spin them.
Price told us the party will award convention delegates based on state delegate equivalents. As for declaring a winner, he said: "We just release results."
We would note that the caucuses have never been solely about who wins. Often, the biggest benefit from Iowa comes not from winning but beating expectations. It also is a place where voters can get close to candidates and it's where a candidate's message and organizational skills are put to the test. The state also has tended to weed out candidates who just don’t catch fire.
The party is taking comments on the plan for 30 days. It also still must be approved by the Democratic National Committee.
We don't expect this new proposal will meet all concerns. The plan does nothing to change the complaint that Iowa has too little racial diversity to go first, nor could it. But we do credit the party for listening to the criticism — and putting on the table a credible proposal.
The caucuses needed to change. This plan recognizes that fact, but it still seeks to preserve the traditional system and the state's privileged place in the presidential nominating system.