iowa caucuses

Iowa’s Election Crises Won’t End With Monday Night’s Caucus Debacle

Iowa's state flag.
Iowa’s state flag. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

As things stand, the 2020 Iowa caucuses seem on track to continue indefinitely. There’s still no official tally of the results, only vague offerings from the state Democratic Party that things will be clarified later, and reports swirling about the disastrous rollout of an app that was meant to help precincts transmit their vote totals. The lack of a resolution more than 14 hours after it was expected has shaken faith in both the party and Iowa’s status as “first in the nation” to cast primary votes. The Trumps and their allies are roasting Democrats on Twitter with renewed energy and fortified ammunition. Calls for the caucuses to be discarded altogether have reached a fever pitch.

The intensity of the reaction might be overblown, but it’s clearer by the day that the problems with the Iowa primaries predate Monday’s debacle. By all accounts they’re an object lesson in anti-democracy. The patent absurdity of requiring voters to mill about a college gymnasium during a two-hour window on a weeknight, realigning with new candidates as fortune dictates in full view of their fellow caucusgoers and TV news cameras — and, potentially, under the watch of abusive partisan spouses trying to enforce ideological cohesion with their household — is a recipe for depressing turnout and excluding workers with late shifts and parents with young children.

But maybe the most vivid emblem of how the caucuses undermine democracy is Iowa election law itself, which applies in caucuses and general elections alike. A major criticism of the state’s status as first to vote is that it’s overwhelmingly white and therefore unrepresentative of either the nation or the Democratic Party — lending outsize king-making power to people who don’t much resemble the electorate that’ll ultimately determine the nominee. But more fundamentally, Iowa is the only state in the U.S. with a lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions. Whatever nonwhite residents might otherwise be eligible to caucus are vastly overrepresented among its criminalized populations; black people are 3 percent of Iowa residents but 23 percent of its prisoners. In a state that exemplifies now perhaps more than ever the wages of needlessly complicated and innately winnowing electoral processes, the least lawmakers could do is what every other state has done (albeit to varying degrees): Give convicted people the right to vote rather than treating them as eternally unworthy of democracy.

Currently, Iowans with felony convictions must petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. This is a hit-or-miss process: It was mainly in response to outside criticism rather than out of any administrative or moral urgency that Governor Kim Reynolds deigned to resolve the 300-name backlog of applications that was sitting on her desk before Monday’s caucuses, according to the Des Moines Register. Iowa is a holdout in this regard. States that used to have similar policies have made changes of late to reverse them, with governors in Virginia and Kentucky recently implementing sweeping restorations of voting rights. Florida voters overwhelmingly backed a resolution to restore felon voting rights in 2018, but were undercut by the Republican legislature, which changed the law’s parameters so that convicted people had to pay all fines and fees owed due to their conviction before being able to vote again. It is now, functionally, a poll tax.

But the real dissonance lies in how inaccessible and vulnerable to chaos the Iowa caucuses can be, while its continued existence constitutes a tacit argument that they comprise a system worthy of our noble republic — even as people who’ve been convicted of crimes are not. Many have observed that had Monday night’s debacle happened in another country, calls for United Nations monitoring would proliferate. It seems equally reasonable to assert that if demonstrations of civic competence are a threshold for running elections, Iowa officials — both inside and outside the state Democratic Party — haven’t proved themselves substantially more worthy than many people who have been imprisoned. This can be extended to the broader electorate. As I’ve written previously, prisons amount to habits of sustained torture, marked by brutal violence and a near-total abandonment of their denizens’ humanity by the state. They are this way because voters and legislators have allowed, if not outright encouraged, them to become so. If these voters and legislators are still considered responsible and worthy enough to participate in electoral politics, there’s little argument that those whom they’re subjecting to hell should be as well, if primarily as self-defense.

The chorus of objections to Iowa’s status as “first in the nation,” with its convoluted and restrictive system and nonrepresentative electorate, will no doubt reverberate for a while. But while satisfactory solutions stand to long elude the caucuses’ administrators and participants, one reasonable, widely embraced, and above all easy-to-implement response to its less democratic traits is to widen the field of eligible voters. Every other state has a more generous and forgiving primary than Iowa. The same is true of the state’s draconian felon voting laws, which have eclipsed countless lives and their hopes of full participation in society. The state’s status as an outlier on both fronts must end before it undermines future elections. If this wasn’t clear before, it certainly should be now.

Iowa’s election crises won’t end With Monday’s debacle