Iowa Caucuses Must End

 As I am writing this, nearly 72 hours after the Iowa caucuses took place, roughly 97 percent of the caucus results have been released. Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg are neck-and-neck, with Senator Sanders receiving 26.1 percent of the vote and Mayor Buttigieg receiving 26.2 percent of the vote. 

When I originally decided to write about the Iowa caucuses, I thought I would be breaking down the results and predicting what they indicate about who will become the future Democratic nominee for president. Obviously, that will not be happening after the chaos that ensued in Iowa on Monday night. Perhaps I could write about Pete Buttigieg’s unexpected surge in Iowa or Bernie Sanders’ consistent base of supporters in multiple early voting states. But I am not going to write about either of those things. 

This election cycle, I have seen enough think pieces about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. I have seen enough analysis about how a mayor from the tiny city of South Bend, IN, could go from a nobody to a frontrunner in the race to be president, despite minimal support from Black voters. I have seen enough predictions about who will end up being the Democratic Party’s nominee. And frankly, I am exhausted. As a voter, I am tired of seeing article after article analyzing campaign strategies and exacerbating candidate infighting when it is so clear that the system itself is very broken. I do not need the definitive results. I am not going to write about a single candidate. I am going to write about why the 2020 Iowa caucuses must be the last Iowa caucuses.

This past summer, I had the honor and privilege of being one of 11 students chosen to be a 2019 Cole Scholar as a part of the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics. As a Cole Scholar, I spent my summer working and conducting field research in Des Moines, Iowa, for Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign as her Iowa Communications Fellow — and I absolutely loved every moment of it. The political climate in Iowa is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. You could be at a bar in downtown Des Moines and witness Kirsten Gillibrand ordering a whiskey or at a restaurant in Waterloo and casually run into Elizabeth Warren and her husband having dinner — which I did. Many Iowans meet most, if not all, of the candidates before caucus night. Iowans take the caucuses very seriously and pride themselves on holding the first primary election in the country. Even so, the Iowa caucus process is highly inaccessible, undemocratic, and unrepresentative of the country. 

There is somewhat of an unspoken rule for campaign staffers in Iowa: Do not criticize the Iowa caucus process. But here’s the thing: We must be critical of any system that stifles democracy, and as demonstrated Monday night, the Iowa caucus does exactly that. Let’s start with the ways in which the Iowa caucuses are highly inaccessible. 

First, the Iowa caucuses occur on a weekday night and can last multiple hours, the doors closing at 7 p.m. What if you have work? What if you are unable to afford childcare for the evening? The Iowa Democratic Party foresaw this issue and proposed a “virtual caucus” by phone to increase accessibility for those who would be unable to attend the in-person precinct locations. This proposal was shot down by the Democratic National Committee. Instead, for the first time in Iowa caucus history, the Iowa Democratic Party approved satellite caucuses in group homes, community centers, factories, and more to increase accessibility for Iowans across the state. Did this change really make the Iowa caucuses more accessible? Maybe. Did they increase voter turnout? Absolutely not. In fact, the Iowa caucuses have historically low voter turnout. The Iowa Democratic Party stated that turnout on Monday was on par with its turnout in 2016: roughly 170,000 caucus-goers. This is approximately 70,000 fewer caucus-goers than in 2008 and only a fraction of the 3.2 million people who live in Iowa. 

Second, pundits, campaigns, voters, and pollsters put a lot of weight on the Iowa caucuses in terms of their importance in determining the eventual Democratic nominee. Since the Iowa caucuses began in 1972, every Democratic president has won the Iowa caucuses — except for President Bill Clinton, who lost to a native Iowan. In 2008, President Barack Obama surprised the nation when he won the Iowa caucuses and increased voter turnout immensely with his novel mobilization tactics. For a long time, winning the Iowa caucuses was paramount to earning the nomination. But is it truly democratic that 170,000 Iowans choose the entire country’s Democratic nominee for President? 

Iowa is 90 percent white. While there are large minority populations in areas like Perry, Storm Lake, Marshalltown, and Waterloo, many campaigns are focused on appealing to the white Iowans who make up the majority of caucus-goers. Iowa’s status as the first caucus state enables candidates to focus their message solely on one demographic: white middle America. This is wrong. This is not how Democrats should be electing our nominee. The Iowa caucuses do not embody the values that the Democratic Party stands for: inclusivity, accessibility, and democracy. I have the utmost respect for Iowans, but they shouldn’t be the first voters to impact the future of our country.

Instead, we need to completely revolutionize the way in which we elect the Democratic nominee for President. We need ranked choice voting, in which voters select multiple candidates in order of preference, so that the candidate with the greatest amount of widespread support becomes the nominee. We need all primaries to be held on the same day across the country, so that no state is more important than the next. We need paper ballots to ensure the integrity of our election system. But these changes won’t just happen overnight. In order to make these massive, necessary changes, we need to organize and rally behind a candidate who champions voting rights. There are multiple candidates who have reiterated the importance of voting rights this election cycle, like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, to name a few. The catastrophe that unraveled Monday night provides an opportunity for a candidate to step up and pave the way for a future in which every state in the country has an equal say in electing our presidential nominee. 

No matter who declares victory when 100 percent of Iowa’s precincts are reported, I know one thing: Democrats lost Monday night. And we will keep losing until we change how we elect our nominee. It is time we end the chapter of the Iowa caucuses and begin a new one, where every vote from every state matters just as much.