Where the Iowa caucuses went wrong.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 31 2007 5:01 PM

The Brigadoon Complex

Where the Iowa caucuses went wrong.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The state of Iowa is a model of civic engagement. It regularly scores one of the highest voter turnout rates in most Novembers; its political system is largely free of corruption; and its court-supervised method of congressional redistricting makes it one of the few states to offer genuinely competitive races for the U.S. House.

At the same time, Iowa's vaunted precinct caucuses—especially those of the Democratic Party—violate some of the most elemental values of a vibrant and open political process. As far as a mechanism for selecting a president is concerned, you might end up with Iowa's model if you set out to design a system that discouraged participation and violated basic democratic values. Why do the caucuses take this terrible form? George McGovern in 1972, and Jimmy Carter more successfully in 1976, made the Iowa caucuses a pre-New Hampshire test of political strength. And then they became in effect a "pre-primary primary," which bring to the state tens of millions of dollars and massive media overkill. In the process, the original purpose of the caucuses—to conduct party business and to talk over local concerns—became completely overwhelmed by the presidential frenzy for which they're so ill-suited. As Drake University professor Dennis Goldford notes, "The presidential preference just began as something piggybacking on an ordinary set of party functions, and it's been blown way out of proportion."

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By nature, a caucus suppresses turnout. If you can't show up at 7 p.m., you don't participate; there's no absentee ballot and no early voting because the fiction is that at a caucus, you're supposed to deliberate. So, if you work the nightshift—if you're a cop, a firefighter, an emergency room nurse, a waitress—and you can't change your hours, you're shut out.  Beyond that, the Democratic Party's caucus method requires not 10 to 15 minutes at a polling place, but two or three hours in a school lunchroom or library. This is why turnout—measured by eligible voters—ran under 6 percent in 2000 (the last time both parties held contests).

The Republican Party, by contrast, has recognized that the change in function, from local party business to presidential contest, requires a change in form. The GOP caucus process is straightforward and simple: You show up, perhaps listen to appeals from candidate's supporters, and then write the name of your choice on a blank piece of paper and drop it into a box. The results are phoned into headquarters and tabulated. That's it—one person, one vote; the candidate with the most votes wins.

But the Democrats have a totally different thing going on; one that discards at least two key elements of an open, fair system: the secret ballot and the one-person-one-vote principle, as Christopher Hitchens points out. When you show up at a Democratic caucus, you and your fellow participants divide up into different corners of a room, based on who you are for. You don't submit a secret ballot; you stand up to be publicly counted. What if you're in a union and want to pick someone your union hasn't endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching you from across the room? Or the person who holds your mortgage? Or your spouse? Tough. "It is free, it is open, and you are there of your own volition," says Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Democratic Party's director of communications. But of course, you are also in a polling place on election day of your own volition—and most free societies think that it's a good idea to let voters keep their choices to themselves.

Then there's the missing principle of "one person, one vote." More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court told the states they had to follow that rule in drawing legislative and congressional districts. The court told Georgia it had to dump its "county unit" rule for electing a governor—a process modeled on the Electoral College, that gave rural areas power out of all proportion to their populations. But the Iowa Democratic Party hasn't gotten the message. Rather than simply tabulating votes, its precinct caucuses calculate "state delegate equivalents," using a mind-numbing formula based on past votes for Democratic candidates for president and governor.