Lessons from Participating in the 2020 Iowa Caucuses

Written and Photographed By Adrian Flynn

The 2020 Iowa Caucuses marked both the beginning of a tumultuous primary season and also possibly the end of the caucus system as we know it. The release of vote totals was delayed not only due to a reporting app that experienced technical problems, but also to the Iowa Democratic Party’s failure to ensure a viable system for Caucus Chairs to report their results in alternate ways. While these issues dominated  the entire caucus in the eyes of onlookers both in the United States and around the world, being on the ground for the Democrats’ first hurdle in defeating Donald Trump provided insight into other key problems with the caucus system as well as its unique attributes. 

Arriving in Iowa a few days before the caucuses to work for the Bernie Sanders campaign, I had no idea what to expect. I had done campaign work many times before, including a significant amount of canvassing, but assumed that the atmosphere of the caucus system would change the narrative of my work in some manner. I was not wrong. Iowa’s caucus system requires that in order to cast a “vote” for a candidate, one must physically travel to a designated caucus site on a designated day and stay for at least one hour (though in many cases the process goes on much longer). One justification I heard for this was that because voting takes place on a single day for a short duration, voters must dedicate less total time to the political process than if they had to wait in line to cast a ballot.

This may have been more accurate in past decades, but I was also able to see how exclusionary the system currently is. Speaking to Iowans in the days leading up to the caucus, I not only had to convince them that they should caucus for my candidate, but I also had to ensure that they had the means and the time to physically attend their caucus. With this came many obstacles, the first of which was knowing which caucus site to attend. This changes with every election cycle and, with this one, it was changed for many individuals in the period leading up to the caucus date to accommodate fluctuations in expected caucusgoers at different sites and other factors. After deducing which site to attend, any prospective caucusgoer then has to be able to arrive no later than 7 p.m. on caucus day. To ensure that people would be able to do so, I asked if they had transportation and if they did not, helped them organize with others who could give them a ride. If I noticed that they were a parent or caretaker, I informed them that, unlike in previous years, caucusgoers were allowed to bring children to their caucus site for the duration of the event. 

Helping individuals create a plan to attend their caucus was a fulfilling and rewarding experience. However, I experienced a lot of heartbreak when speaking to Iowans who told me that they would not be able to caucus due to chronic illness, disability, work, or prior commitments. These obstacles are to be expected in any democratic society. The difference between the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in other states, though, is that the Iowa Democratic Party has not instituted any mechanism, such as absentee ballots or online caucuses, which might accommodate those with such impediments.

In the primaries of other states, individuals routinely exercise their democratic rights through extended voting periods or absentee measures. But the nature of the caucus system, requiring on-site interaction, precludes such options. According to the former Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, Scott Brennan, the use of absentee ballots would erode “the sense of community that makes our caucuses so special.” Over the past few decades, small amendments have been made to render the caucuses more accessible, such as the establishment of satellite caucuses. But, as many Iowans told me, the increases in outside funding, political theatrics and measures to suppress the vote have made it impossible for the caucuses to serve their original and true purpose: to bring residents of a precinct together in a shared space to engage in constructive debate and adequately allocate delegates based on how individuals align themselves in support of candidates. 

My experience in Iowa illustrates this sentiment. After a few long days and nights knocking on doors and organizing events and outreach, I was assigned to a precinct at a recreational center in Iowa City as a “Deputy Ambassador” for the Bernie Sanders campaign. This meant that I was responsible, along with another Ambassador, to guide caucusgoers to the Sanders corner of the room if they were supporters and to try to persuade them to do so if they were not. We got to the site early and while we thought at first that the room was spacious enough to clearly define who supported which candidate, the caucus quickly swelled from around 15 people when the doors opened to 281 at the first alignment. 

I rushed to tape Bernie signs as high as possible on the wall so that people could see our location in the room and also made sure that everyone in our corner got an “I’m Canvassing for Bernie” sticker. Our corner was adjacent to that of the Joe Biden campaign and it quickly became apparent that our swelling number of supporters was overflowing into that campaign’s corner. After establishing the group’s “territory,” a small group of about 20 Andrew Yang supporters claimed their stake near the entrance door but mostly still mixed in with the Bernie group, distinguishing themselves only by a large “Yang 2020” sign on a stick. The Buttigieg and Warren groups were situated on the opposite corners of the rectangular room, but were so close to each other that it was hard to tell them apart. Lastly, a small Klobuchar group established itself beside Biden’s group with a homemade sign, also hard to distinguish from the Biden group. The situation was somewhat confusing, though not completely chaotic, and we were able to ensure that every caucusgoer in our group received a Presidential Preference Card (essentially a ballot). After the first alignment, we were in the lead with 95, with Warren at 74, Buttigieg at 50, Biden at 23, Yang at 21 and Klobuchar at 16, among other smaller, undecided groups. Cory Booker and Michael Bennet each received a single vote. The viability threshold in our precinct, as in most others of our size, was 15%. This made every group unviable except Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders. We were then given a mere 15 minutes to realign. 

A slide made by the Precinct Chair outlining the caucus agenda
The Precinct Chair explaining the procedure for the caucus

Our Bernie team quickly huddled and devised a plan to split up to reach out to the unviable groups. As soon as the Caucus Chair said “Begin,” the Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders caucusgoers either left the room (because their candidate was viable and they could), or else rushed to attempt to win over members of one of the unviable groups. I went to the Yang group and was able to successfully bring four of them over to the Sanders group by explaining the similarity of the two candidates’ goals and visions for the middle class in the wake of increasing corporate profits and the displacement of workers through automation. Other members of my team, including some very passionate caucusgoers, were able to convince some undecided voters and Biden supporters to join the Bernie group. Most of the Yang group left, not wishing to realign, while many of the Klobuchar and Biden caucusgoers went straight to Buttigieg. Some Klobuchar caucusgoers also went straight for Warren.

In the end, my precinct had 7 State Delegates to allocate based on its number of caucusgoers. Sanders won three of them with 105 final voters, Warren won two with 92 final voters and Buttigieg also won two with 71 final voters. In terms of “State Delegate Equivalents,” which are projected numbers of state party convention delegates that candidates will receive proportional to their precinct size, Sanders won 1.22 while Warren and Buttigieg each won 0.81. State Delegates will then go on to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention (to be held in Milwaukee, in July) of which a majority nominate the Democratic presidential candidate. Acknowledging that these results may change with a recount stemming from alleged inaccuracies in Iowa delegate allocation, as of February 11 Pete Buttigieg won the most pledged delegates with 14, although Bernie Sanders won a plurality of votes, both in the first and final rounds, and won 12 delegates.

The Bernie Sanders campaign office in Iowa City, IA on the day of the caucuses

The organization of the caucuses themselves was only the beginning of problems in counting delegates. While I was celebrating the end of the caucuses that night with the Sanders campaign in Iowa City, it quickly became apparent that Caucus Chairs were having difficulties reporting results to the Iowa Democratic Party. We were of course disappointed that the results did not get disseminated before we all had to part ways to return home that evening. However, we never could have imagined then that it would take multiple days for the entirety of the results to be announced or that the blame would be primarily attributed to an app developed by a company named “Shadow”.

There were at least two parts to the failure of the Iowa Democratic Party to manage the caucuses. While the media focused almost entirely on the app, in reality the app was made available to Caucus Chairs to use if they wanted, but was not mandated by the state party and thus cannot be solely blamed for the ensuing fiasco. The real problem was that when it experienced glitches, party leaders failed to effectively utilize a backup system to gather the results. While the scandal over the app might have been the last straw needed to end the Iowa caucus system, it is arguably the least grave of the problems of the system. Along with the multiple ways in which the caucus system limits participation, many in the Democratic Party do not see why Iowa, a state with an over 90% white population, should unilaterally be given the importance of hosting the first test of Presidential candidates in the nation. For a Democratic Party that increasingly sees its strength in the diversity of its supporters, this view has rightfully gained significant traction.

As someone who loves the political system and seeing it in action, the caucuses were a powerful window through which to witness small-scale democracy, and I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in them. However, our focus, both as a party and as a country, should be to extend the right to vote to all without hindrance, and the caucus system undeniably works in opposition to this goal. While there are a multitude of ways to expand the caucus system such as through online caucuses and absentee measures, these would just open the process up to further complications with counting votes and allocating delegates (including possible cybersecurity threats) as well as remove the supposed original appeal of the caucus system itself. As Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois stated, “I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting.” It is time to conclude that the caucus process is not suitable for democracy in the 21st century, which must be as inclusive a process as possible while simultaneously diminishing the risk of cyberthreats, miscounts and technical errors. While recognizing the initial appeal and function of the caucus process, the caucus system must now be relegated to history so that, as the Constitution proclaims, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kirk Boyd says:

    Great work and writing. I agree this system should come to an end as we simplify voting.

    Thanks also for working for Bernie. He would have won in 2016 and he can win in 2020.

    Cheers, Kirk

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