vision 2020

Iowa Gets ‘Satellite Caucuses’ After DNC Nixes ‘Virtual’ Plan

In February 2020, Iowa will have a few more of these scenes in less traditional venues. Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

After a temporary hiccup, Iowa Democrats are back on track with a proposal to make their presidential caucuses comply with the national party’s requirements to provide more accessibility to voters who struggle to attend the traditional multi-hour fixed-time-and-location events. A “satellite caucuses” add-on has been unanimously approved by the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel, which a few weeks ago killed plans from Iowa and Nevada to hold a “virtual caucus” by phone.

Virtual causes were ruled out because of fears about such a system’s clear vulnerability to hacking. Other options Iowa Democrats considered (e.g., mail-in ballots or in-person early voting) would have taken the caucuses too far in the direction of primaries, which might have triggered New Hampshire’s law requiring it to hold the first primary in the nation. Iowa and Nevada could simply have asked for, and probably have secured, a waiver for 2020 letting them go ahead with their past practices. But for Iowans paranoid about losing their first spot in the line of nominating contests, acknowledging an inability to make the caucuses more accessible seemed to give too much ammunition to those who want to blow up the whole calendar with its privileged early states (in order, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina).

The “satellite caucuses” approach is the “accessibility reform” that would least disrupt the traditional system. Here’s how the Iowa Democratic Party describes it:

• The 2020 satellite caucus proposal will allow for additional caucus locations on February 3 to expand participation for people who cannot attend their in-person precinct caucus …

• Iowa Democrats can apply to hold a satellite site at places like factories, group homes, or community gathering places, to better accommodate people who cannot attend their in-person caucus. This option will be especially useful for shift workers, Iowans with disabilities, Iowans serving overseas, and students.

• The IDP will create a special satellite-caucus review committee that will review applications and determine approval …

• The results will be reported using the same method as precinct caucus locations. The satellite caucuses will create one additional county in each congressional district. 

These satellite events will be live, not virtual, and will have to take place on the same day as the regular caucuses, February 3, though some provision will be made for variations in the exact starting times. Although giving virtual caucuses (depending on participation) ten percent of the state-delegate-equivalents awards, by which victory in the Iowa Caucuses is measured, had been contemplated, the satellite system will probably be less significant in affecting the outcome. What it most seems to resemble is the system already employed by Nevada in 2016 to accommodate casino and hotel workers who were on duty when the regular caucuses were held:

The Nevada Democratic Party set up six caucus locations on the Las Vegas strip to accommodate shift workers at the hotels and casinos so they don’t have to travel to their home precincts to participate. 

Presumably, national party approval of Iowa’s satellite-caucus proposal will make it easy for Nevada to reuse or expand its own 2016 system.

As for Iowa, the satellite caucuses will create an interesting organizational challenge for the various presidential campaigns — and for pollsters and journalists, too. Participation in the new Ann Selzer poll of Iowa, which is creating a buzz in political circles because it shows Elizabeth Warren in the lead, did not mention any options beyond the traditional caucuses (a June Selzer poll had been based on the availability of virtual caucuses “to take place online or by phone on several days leading up to the traditional, in-person caucus meetings on February 3”). It’s possible that Selzer’s sample had been too large in June and too small in September; that’s entirely unclear. But at least now everyone can get onto the same page between now and November.

Iowa Gets ‘Satellite Caucuses’ After ‘Virtual’ Plan Rejected