“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.
Read: Voter suppression is warping democracy
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.”