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Just How Do Those Wacky Iowa Caucuses Work? PDF Print Email
By Sean Flaherty, Iowans for Voting Integrity   
November 28, 2007
Americans spend months inundated with horse-race coverage of the Iowa caucuses. The caucus process itself seems to leave journalists, politically minded citizens and frankly, most Iowa voters, wondering how the heck these meetings actually end up translating into delegates who vote for Presidential candidates at a summer convention. And during a time of citizen unease about the integrity of election results, some are beginning to wonder about the security of caucus results, if the results we see broadcast on caucus night really reflect the will of the caucus-goers.

So how do these wacky Iowa caucuses work, and what measures exist to protect the integrity of the results?

A modern caucus, in 13 states still the basis of choosing delegates to Presidential nominating convention, is a descendant of the Congressional nominating caucus, and the early state nominating caucuses, in which members of state legislatures met to choose party candidates for state office, and members of Congress chose party Presidential nominees.  The Congressional system died after the 1824 election, and was replaced by national nominating conventions. At the same time, state caucuses gradually gave way to state nominating conventions, and the precinct-level caucus became important.  

Caucuses are generally a viva-voce affair, meaning that voters openly declare their choice, but Iowa Republicans now vote for President on a secret ballot.

Many know that Iowa caucus-goers meet among their party members in locations that range from a school cafeteria to a living room, and then make their choice for President. Beyond those basics, the caucus process seems arcane, even for political junkies. It has even been suggested that voting machines of some kind are used in the caucuses, which has made Iowans who have attended caucuses scratch their heads.

The caucuses are entirely party-run, and the two parties' processes are alike in many ways, but differ in important aspects.

Both parties allow any registered voter to participate in their caucus by re-registering as a member of the party on caucus night.  A voter can attend only one party's caucus, and since both take place on the same night, "caucus raiding" is not a concern of either party.

In both parties, the caucuses elect delegates to the county convention, rather than to the national party convention.  The county convention will then select delegates to attend to a district convention, which will them elect delegates to a state convention. The state conventions elect delegates to the national nominating convention. In neither party are the delegates at the three levels of conventions bound to vote according to the Presidential caucus results, though generally they do so if the national race is still competitive.

The caucuses take place at the precinct level. In both parties, supporters usually make speeches on behalf of Presidential candidates. The Democrats divide into preference groups for Presidential candidates, which must meet a viability threshold to elect county convention delegates. The threshold is either 15% of the attendees or 25%, depending on the number of delegates to choose.  If a preference group does not meet the threshold, its members can realign with another candidate's group, as can members of viable preference groups.  Then each group elects delegates in proportion to its percentage of attendees.

At the Republican caucuses, there is a straw poll for President and a separate election for county convention delegates, according to Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa.  The Presidential straw poll is conducted by secret ballot, in which voters write their choice on paper. The ballots are counted by hand. After the straw poll, other caucus business takes place, and the selection of county convention delegates is nearer the end of the evening.  The caucus-goers who run for election to the county convention do not necessarily say which Presidential candidate they support. 

And about voting machines: no, they are not used to tabulate votes in either the Democratic or Republican caucuses, according to the Republicans' Laudner and Iowa Democratic Party communications director Carrie Giddins. The Republicans phone in their results to the state party, and the phone call is witnessed, usually by the caucus-goers who made speeches on behalf of the candidates.  The Democratic caucus chair also phones in results to the state party, and party rules require a representative from each preference group be present to witness the call.

The Republican precinct chairs will usually allow observers to watch the caucus and the ballot-counting, though they have discretion, said Laudner. Democratic rules allow media and citizen observation.

The caucuses are complex, no way to deny it. Say what you will about the complexity of the caucuses, though; they are orders of magnitude more transparent and verifiable than the roster of Presidential primaries using paperless touch screen voting machines that will follow weeks later. Let's hope that 2008 is the last Presidential election year in which anyone will have occasion to make that comparison.
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