Of all the arcane rituals that shape our political system today, the Iowa Caucus might take the cake. There is no absentee voting allowed, which means active duty military personnel are disenfranchised. So are doctors and nurses who must work the evening shift, as well as restaurant workers and parents who can’t find or afford a babysitter. It’s no wonder then that so few people actually show up to vote, which can be a two-hour commitment.
In the busy world of the 21st century shouldn’t we be making it easier, not harder, to vote?
The Iowa Caucus’s overly complicated and burdensome rules are not set by the state government, but each political party, and that’s the heart of the problem. The Iowa Democratic Party Caucus rules are particularly suspect. The voting is not done by secret ballot, which means voters can be subjected to peer pressure when they publicly state their support for a particular candidate. And that is by design. It is one of the only times that voters in this country debate each other as part of the voting process. Then when the votes are counted, it’s not one person, one vote. Votes are weighted based on a precinct’s past voting performance.
That is because voters are not electing a candidate, but instead are electing delegates to county conventions, who then in turn elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention. However, none of these delegates are committed to vote for the winner of the caucus. Not very democratic.
Diversity is something else the Iowa Caucus is lacking. The state’s largely white rural population is very unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Disenfranchisement exacerbates this problem. The caucus participants tend to be party activists who are either more conservative or liberal than their party’s mainstream. In 2008, 45 percent of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa described themselves as “very conservative,” while only 10 percent said they were “moderate.” That means a candidate like Jon Huntsman simply can’t compete in Iowa. On the other hand, the state is very friendly territory for fringe candidates like Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson. Rick Santorum is surging right now.
Despite the small number of voters in Iowa, an incredibly disproportionate amount of media attention is paid to this contest, since it is the first in the nation. After all, what is the prize for winning Iowa? It’s not the tiny percentage of delegates needed to win the nomination that the winner will pick up. It’s media attention, and the political momentum that comes with it.
Since they get to vote first, Iowans are kingmakers. The fortunes of national campaigns are often made or broken there (just ask Howard Dean). With that kind of power, it is the responsibility of the party bosses to make the process more transparent, and more democratic. Unfortunately, they have no incentive to do so. After all, the caucuses as they currently exist are very good for the Iowa state political parties. They get to sign up more voters. They make a lot of money during a campaign season that is full of boondoggles such as the Ames Straw Poll, a “fiesta” held in August in which the Republican candidates rent space, set up tents and buy food for their supporters.
This is not a problem that will be solved from within.
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