Iowa Democrats on Monday proposed an expansion of the presidential caucuses, allowing for a tele-caucus that is meant to allay Democratic concerns that too few people can take part in the stand-in-a-grange-hall version that has been the norm for decades.
The state party plan, which still must pass muster with the Democratic National Committee, marks the most significant change to the caucus process since its inception in 1972 and seems likely to complicate the campaigns’ strategies.
“This process has created presidents; it’s allowed presidents and campaigns to test ideas that can win,” Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said during a conference call on Monday. “But we know we had to make changes, and make improvements.”
The move is meant to make it easier for voters to participate in the process, even if they have to work and can’t make it to their local precinct on caucus night. Although party officials don’t have estimates, the move could significantly increase the number of voters involved and bring more moderates into a process that has long been dominated by liberal activists willing to show up for several hours on a winter’s night.
In a state of 3 million people, only 171,000 participated in the Democratic caucuses in 2016.
Not all of the details have been sorted out, but party officials say the voting will take place over a phone or smart device.
To ensure no one votes twice, those who want to participate in the tele-caucus would have to register ahead of time. They would be given a personal identification number to tele-caucus and then would be prohibited from participating in the in-person caucus.
In the week leading up to the in-person caucus, the tele-caucuses would be held at five different times.
Voters would rank their choices, and the party would tabulate the choices. Candidates would still need to meet a 15 percent threshold to be considered, as they do in the in-person precinct meetings. If a candidate doesn’t gain 15 percent, then the voter’s second selection would be tabulated — the electronic equivalent of making voters at the current caucuses pick a surviving candidate.
Iowa Democrats would have to foot the bill for the added cost of implementing the virtual caucus. Price said the state party did not have cost estimates but said that the caucuses next year will be the most expensive it has held.
The tele-caucuses would comprise about 10 percent of the allotted delegates from Iowa — regardless of how many people participate — while the in-person caucus would account for about 90 percent.
“The fact of the matter is Iowans are used to caucusing and campaigns have historically been built on getting people physically in the room,” said Scott Brennan, a Democratic National Committee member from Iowa who has been involved in crafting the proposal. “The incentive is that [in-person caucusing] is still the preferred method. That is where people will put their resources.”
The proposal will be open for a 30-day comment period before Iowa Democrats finalize the plan and send it to the DNC for approval.
The changes are being made to satisfy absentee voting requirements from the Democratic National Committee.
Iowa Democrats said they had “thousands of conversations” before making the proposal and that they have weighed a variety of alternatives. One idea was to allow a proxy vote by a trusted friend or relative. Another involved having a ranked mail-in ballot.
But party leaders have been conscious of any change that would make the caucus seem like a primary, which would provoke officials in New Hampshire, where state law requires them to hold the nation’s first primary.
Iowa Democrats last spring flew to New Hampshire to meet with the state’s longtime secretary of state, Bill Gardner.
Iowa officials believe the solution they have come up with will satisfy Gardner and not trigger him to move the New Hampshire primary up in front of the Iowa caucus date of Feb. 3, a move which could trigger other changes to the primary season calendar.
In an interview, Gardner said that “so far it doesn’t appear that they’re changing it from a caucus,” but he reserved judgment until the Iowa plan is final.
“It’s not all together yet. It’s just mostly an idea or theoretical . . . but ideas sometimes can morph when they start trying to put flesh on it,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.”