Disenfranchised in Des Moines: who gets left out of the Iowa caucuses?

We often treat the Iowa caucuses as if they are the ultimate exercise in participatory democracy. People do their civic duty by coming out on an evening in the dead of winter, to meet with their neighbors and pick the next president of the United States.

What we often overlook, however, is how many people are effectively shut out from the process--say, people who work the evening shift, or who cannot easily find child care on a school night.


NORTH LIBERTY, IA - DECEMBER 28: Mitt Romney asks military veterans to raise their hands. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

A reader, David Bardin, had the same thought, and emailed me his recollections of working with his wife Livia in Iowa as out-of-state volunteers for former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley during the 2000 Democratic primary.

“Caucus time was smack in the middle of bed time for small children,” Bardin wrote. “We met mothers who put feeding, bathing, praying with, and tucking in their kids ahead of sorting out America’s politics. The timing and time span of the caucuses tends to exclude a part of the electorate with a deep interest in America’s future.”

For some, the caucus process also violates the privacy in which they hold their political beliefs. The balloting is far from secret.

“We still remember one farmer who was unwilling even to attend a Democratic caucus, because his banker was a Republican,” Bardin wrote.

So as we all wax about the virtues of this quirky process, its charm and intimacy, it is also worth remembering that it is an experience that many cannot share.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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