The Washington Post

Iowa Democrats propose changes to caucus system

At a community center in downtown Rock Rapids, Iowa, Carol Hill, former Precinct 7 Republican chairwoman, greets caucus participants as she sets up, and plans before the evening caucuses on Jan. 3, 2012. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Iowa caucuses are about to become more convenient for Democratic voters who can’t take time off work or who are serving overseas, under proposals offered by the state Democratic Party on Friday.

The new rules would establish a statewide precinct for any Iowans serving in the military, who could cast their votes by telephone. It remains unclear, however, how the party will coordinate with the Defense Department to ensure servicemen and women could participate from bases abroad.

Satellite caucus locations would be established for those with disabilities, and the party will hire a special employee tasked with picking caucus locations that are wheelchair accessible.

And the party said it would lobby the governor — Gov. Terry Branstad (R) is heavily favored for re-election this November — and the state legislature to pass new regulations requiring employers to let their workers take time off to participate in caucuses.

Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan delivered the proposed modifications to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which is meeting Friday in Washington. The new proposal will be formally submitted as part of the state’s delegate selection process in 2015.

Current rules require Iowa Democrats to show up to their local precinct at a certain time on a certain night. Typically, turnout at a caucus is much lower than in a primary; in 2008, 239,000 people showed up to cast their votes in Democratic caucuses, while 284,000 voted in the New Hampshire primary a week later, even though Iowa has about twice New Hampshire’s population.

The changes, aimed at increasing participation in the 2016 caucuses, are widely seen as an appeal to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who came in third place in the 2008 caucuses. Clinton’s campaign had contemplated skipping the Iowa caucuses, and in her concession speech she highlighted the fact that military members and late-night workers — like those in the health care industry — couldn’t attend.

Clinton’s allies have been closely watching the machinations behind the 2016 presidential nominating process as she considers whether to run. Harold Ickes, a longtime Clinton hand, joined the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, where he served for years, last August.

But one thing that won’t change is when caucus-goers get to vote: There will still be a set time the caucuses begin, rather than staggered times or alternative forms of voting.

The state party said it would not recommend allowing people to vote in the caucuses by proxy. In prepared testimony to the DNC panel, Brennan will say the party didn’t want to create what he will call “super caucus goers,” a person carrying multiple proxies whose vote would, in effect, be worth more than others. Brennan will also say the party considered, but rejected, the idea of absentee ballots, which would erode “the sense of community that makes our caucuses so special.”

“The Iowa Caucuses are democracy in its purest form, and the ideas outlined will help make this great process even better,” Brennan said in a statement.

Every four years, Iowa’s caucuses must fend off challenges from other states eager for the spotlight and stature that comes with being among the first presidential nominating contests.

The state’s representatives to the Democratic and Republican national committees have both formed alliances with representatives from other early contest states — New Hampshire, South Carolina and, to a lesser degree, Nevada — to defend their position. Representatives from other states have spent decades proposing and debating new primary systems, some of which would allow states the opportunity to go first on a rotating basis, though none have garnered enough support.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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