Iowans Vote First, If They Can Vote at All

Democrats want to make voting more inclusive. The Iowa caucus is testing that push.

The shadows of voters lined up outside a 2016 caucus location in West Des Moines, Iowa.
Voters line up outside a caucus location in West Des Moines, Iowa, in 2016. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Sonya Sayers, a 56-year-old Democrat from Des Moines, Iowa, has encouraged her friends to vote in every caucus and general election for as long as she can remember. But she hasn’t always done so herself. Back in 2016, when she worked the late shift at a local fast-food restaurant, Sayers often didn’t get off until midnight, long after the caucus was over. She doesn’t work nights anymore, but she’s still not sure she’ll make it to the caucus this coming February.

“I can’t afford a car,” Sayers told me, with a resigned laugh. “And the [voting site] near my house is not on the bus line.”

The Iowa caucus has long faced criticism for being inaccessible to a large swath of voters, including those with disabilities or inflexible work schedules. In September, the Iowa Democratic Party proposed a “satellite” option for the caucus system, as part of an effort to make the first-in-the-nation contest more accessible to people like Sayers. But many Iowans are still frustrated. They argue that the change does next to nothing to make the process more inclusive. Instead of solving the problem, these Iowans argue, the satellite-caucus proposal merely highlights something they’ve believed all along: The state’s contest is undemocratic and in need of substantive reform.

“It’s a joke, frankly,” Emmanuel Smith, a 29-year-old disability-rights advocate from Des Moines, told me. “So many populations are potentially disenfranchised, and I don’t find that folksy or charming.”

The goings-on in Iowa are noteworthy, naturally, because of the state’s prominence in American presidential elections: Iowans vote first, setting the tone and often the direction for the rest of the primary. But the caucus controversy here is notable for another reason: Democrats across the country are combatting voter suppression and trying to expand access to the ballot. Yet the party is injecting enormous amounts of energy and financial resources into a nominating contest in which voters are routinely excluded.

Voting in the United States can often be difficult, but that is especially true with the Iowa caucuses. Unlike primaries, where voters can cast secret ballots at any point during the day and generally have the option to vote early or absentee, the caucus occurs at a set time and place—usually in the evening—and requires participants to be physically present for the vote. And the process can be confusing for voters, with foggy rules, technicalities, and coin tosses. Overall voter turnout in the 2016 Iowa caucus was about 16 percent, compared with 52 percent in the New Hampshire primary election.

Democrats across the country have positioned themselves as voting-rights champions, challenging voter-ID laws and other legislation that they argue is intended to curb voter turnout. After Democrats took control of the House of Representatives earlier this year, the very first bill they passed was a sweeping voting-rights and anti-corruption package that would expand early voting nationwide. But the Iowa caucus process “suppresses the vote at a time when we want to increase the number of people participating,” says Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents workers at Quaker Oats and General Mills plants in Iowa. It is inherently “discriminatory.”

Caucuses pose major concerns for voters with disabilities in particular. “The in-person caucuses are still not accessible,” says Jane Hudson, the executive director of Disability Rights Iowa. Often, there aren’t microphones around, so the evening’s proceedings can be difficult for voters to hear. And caucus sites—which can include churches, schools, and union halls—are often packed, with limited seating and not enough handicapped parking.

“I’m four feet tall, and a giant crush of people is not my idea of a fun evening out,” said Smith, the disability-rights activist, who has brittle-bone disease. That’s if he can make it to the precinct location in the first place. Smith, who said he plans on caucusing for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2020, suffers from chronic debilitating pain that sometimes prevents him from leaving the house. “The idea that on the night of [the caucus] I might not be able to go is infuriating,” he told me. “It’s disrespectful that my party doesn’t seem particularly concerned in addressing that.”

Recent attempts to restructure the caucuses to meet Democrats’ stated goal of expanding ballot access haven’t gone far. In August 2018, the Democratic National Committee, as part of a broader push to make caucuses more inclusive, instituted a new requirement that all states provide an absentee option for their 2020 nominating contests. In response, the Iowa Democratic Party proposed a series of “virtual caucuses,” which would have allowed Iowans to participate in the caucus by phone for the first time. But the DNC rejected that proposal in late August, citing security concerns. Two weeks later, the DNC conditionally approved a plan for Iowa to conduct satellite caucuses, which would allow voters who cannot attend in their assigned precinct to apply to form their own remote groups in places like factories or nursing homes. The party plans to establish a committee to review the satellite-caucus applications, but the details are sparse.

The satellite caucuses wouldn’t meet many voters’ needs. It seems logistically impossible for every individual who can’t attend in their precinct to set up their own satellite version. Plus, the caucus process is notoriously complicated, and even with months of training, volunteers still run into problems every cycle. A host of new satellite caucuses could compound those issues.

The Iowa Democrats’ new plan, in other words, doesn’t go nearly far enough for Iowans who have long advocated for a more inclusive process. “It’s still going to disenfranchise a lot of folks that are shift workers,” says Cathy Glasson, a former nurse and the president of SEIU Local 199 in North Liberty, Iowa.

Still, some view the plan as a sign that the state party is at least trying to follow national Democrats’ lead. “We are always just looking for movement in the direction that is making the caucuses more accessible to people,” says Charlie Wishman, the secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor. “I can nitpick a lot of things about it, but … this is a positive step.” And the Iowa Democratic Party contends that it has spent months working to address the concerns of voters like Smith. “For 2020, the virtual caucus was going to be our attempt to get people involved,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told me. Since that proposal was nixed, the satellite caucus is the next best thing, in his view.

The state party is also hiring a new caucus-accessibility director and two accessibility organizers. But the most effective solution, critics of the caucus argue—and have argued for years—would be to allow Iowans to mail in absentee ballots ahead of caucus day, just like they do in other primary elections. Price told me that an absentee process won’t be on the table for 2020, given that it’s “very difficult to implement” with just five months until the caucus.

But perhaps a larger reason behind the party’s hesitation is that, if they do implement an absentee-ballot process, the Iowa caucus would look a lot more like a primary, which could upend the state’s first-in-the-nation status. (New Hampshire, by state law, must hold the first primary election, just as Iowa law requires that it must have the first caucus.) “That’s the danger Iowa is facing,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political-science professor at Iowa State University. “If we do [that], do we then have the position of first caucus taken away from us?”

The state’s importance in the country’s political system is a point of pride for many Iowans, bringing copious amounts of money and attention to a small state. Still, critics of the caucus ask: Is the attention worth the disenfranchisement of so many Iowans? “People in the [Iowa Democratic Party] like having Joe Biden in their kitchen, they like the political influence it gives them,” Smith said. “So they’re willing to trade my ability to freely participate in the democratic system in order to preserve that.”