On Feb. 3, Iowa Democrats will gather for the first nominating contest of the 2020 presidential election. Though only a few states use the caucus process, Iowa’s place in the calendar means its result will hold weight until voters gather in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in the ensuing weeks. But how do the caucuses actually work? Here are answers to some questions voters in the rest of the country might have.
What is a caucus?
A caucus is a closed meeting of a group of people belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy. Historians in the 19th century theorized that the word could have roots in Algonquin or Late Latin. In the context of presidential elections, caucuses are an alternative to casting ballots at a polling place for registering voters’ preferences among candidates running for office.
What happens on caucus night?
Democratic voters gather at 7 p.m. local time for 1,677 caucuses across Iowa in the state’s schools, churches and living rooms. First, voters are divided into groups based on which candidates they support. (Undecided voters may form a group too.) At most caucus sites, groups that have more than 15 percent of the attendees are designated “viable.” Voters who aligned with nonviable candidates can then switch to one of the viable groups for a second round, or they can try to win over enough support from members of other nonviable groups to clear the threshold. Members of viable groups in the first round may not switch.
After the “realignment” round, another vote count is taken, and all candidates who clear the 15 percent threshold are awarded at least one delegate. Officials use a mathematical formula to calculate how many “state delegate equivalents” each candidate has won at each caucus location. The candidate with the most is considered to have “won,” although this is only the first step in a process that will play out in county and congressional district caucuses in March and April, leading up to the state convention in June, which will actually select the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 49.8 percent of state delegate equivalents, to 49.6 percent for Bernie Sanders. Sanders supporters claimed there was reason to suspect that he had actually won the raw vote total in the state.
Can you vote absentee in a caucus?
According to the Iowa Democratic Party’s rules, “there will be no absentee or proxy voting at any precinct caucus for any reason.” However, for this year’s caucuses, the party designated nearly 100 “satellite caucus sites,” which allows Iowans unable to attend one of the main caucuses to vote in other states, countries or other locations within the state. Proposals to allow caucus voting by phone in Iowa and Nevada were quashed last year by the Democratic National Committee over ballot security concerns.
How are results reported?
Before this year, the only figures released at the end of caucus night were the number of state delegate equivalents won by each candidate. State delegate equivalents refer to the number of delegates each candidate will have at the party’s state convention in June, which in turn determines how many national convention delegates each candidate receives at July’s gathering in Milwaukee.
2020 brings a new wrinkle. After a push for more transparency in the process, there will also be two raw vote totals: The number of votes each candidate received at the beginning of the night before those below 15 percent were culled (presumably reflecting the caucus attendees’ first choices) and the final number of votes received by each candidate at the end of the night (after the also-rans are eliminated, so second choices come into play). This change could, in theory, allow multiple candidates to declare victory.
How many states have caucuses?
In addition to Iowa, North Dakota, Nevada and Wyoming have caucuses. (North Dakota’s is a firehouse caucus, which allows early mail-in voting.) There are also four U.S territories — American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands — that hold caucuses. At the urging of the DNC, a number of states switched away from caucuses after 2016.
How long has Iowa been the first primary state?
Democrats pushed back the date of the Iowa caucuses in 1972, so they take place before New Hampshire’s primary, the traditional start of primary voting. Republicans joined them in 1976, and Iowa has led off the primary process for both parties ever since. By Iowa state law, the caucuses must be held “at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any state meeting, caucus, or primary that constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state.”
Will Iowans be the first to vote in the 2020 presidential election?
No. Early votes were cast in Minnesota starting the morning of Jan. 17, although results won’t be released until the state’s primary election day on March 3.
Are Republicans caucusing, too?
Yes. While other states are planning to cancel their GOP primaries and caucuses in solidarity with the incumbent President Trump, the Republican Party of Iowa will hold its traditional straw poll at caucus meetings Monday.
Are there any criticisms of the caucus process?
The caucuses have been criticized as undemocratic for requiring voters to be present for an evening meeting that can run several hours, a potential hardship for those with disabilities, conflicting work schedules or young children. February weather in Iowa can keep voters, especially in rural areas, from participating. And, of course, voters have to declare their preferences in public, unlike almost every other election in the country, which is conducted by secret ballot. But that can also be viewed as a feature: They have to stand up and be counted among their neighbors.
Last fall, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro criticized the process for giving so much prominence to Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white states whose demographics do not match the party’s composition.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” Castro said. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”
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