Iowa prepares nation for primaries

Fitz Fitsgerald, CCAC North Student

On April 28, 2020, Pennsylvanian Democrats and Republicans will head to the polls to vote in a primary election. The polls will be open from 7:00 am until 8:00 pm, during which time people will head to their local precinct and vote on a machine for who they want to represent their party in the November 3 general election, most notably who they want to run for president.
On February 3, 2020, Iowans did something very different to achieve a similar outcome; they caucused. Ballots were not cast, rather, they signed presidential preference cards after publicly gathering in a room and arranging themselves into groups for their preferred candidates. I observed the Democrat caucus of the the 21st precinct of Iowa City, Iowa.
Iowa City is the sixth largest city in Iowa, 115 miles from the capital Des Moines. It’s the main campus for the University of Iowa, and a UNESCO World City of Literature. The 21st precinct is adjacent to some of the dorms and the business district of the city, the majority of its residents are students. There’s a disproportionate rate of Priuses to pick-up trucks compared with the rest of the state. One resident volunteer at the polls described it as having one of the highest Ph.D.’s per capita.
Between 6:00 and 7:00pm local time, 797 residents filed into a 130’x86’ ballroom in the university’s student union building. 580 chairs were arranged in a grid, 5 rectangles of 60 chairs and 4 of 70. Residents had the opportunity to register to vote or change their party registration at the doors so they could participate. [Exact population data is difficult because the census lines are not the same precinct maps, but the two census tracts in the precinct have a combined population of around 3,900 (Tract 1, Tract 2), meaning there was about a 20% voter turnout.]
In Pennsylvania, the deadline to register to vote or change your party is March 30. Only members of the party can vote in our primaries; independents and unaffiliated voters cannot. You can check your status, register, and change your party online at
At 7:02, the caucus chair spoke into a microphone from a small riser and said all the chairs had to be filled to follow the rules for determining the number of participants — no counting was done as people registered or entered the room. A handful of leaders from each representative helped facilitate this. At 7:33 the caucus was called to order, and to continue to get the headcount all the unseated participants hand to get themselves in groups of 10.
The headcount and presidential preference card distribution finished at 8:12. After a review of the process and 60 second pitches from 7 of the candidates’ representatives; at 8:31 everyone got up from their seat and arranged themselves into groups for who their preferred candidate, labeled the First Alignment.
In order for a candidate to earn delegates from a precinct’s caucus, they need at least 15% of the participants’ support; in this case that meant at least 120 people. At 9:00, the partial results of the First Alignment were announced: only Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were “viable” candidates, although their exact counts were unknown because the caucus chair said that could just be figured out later. These were announced at 9:45: 375 for Sanders, 238 for Warren.
The 184 people who did not support either of those viable candidates then had an opportunity to make their second choice known: they could join with either of the already viable candidates, band together to make a previously un-viable candidate viable, or confusingly neither. This Second Alignment began at 9:10. At this point, people who had already committed to Sanders or Warren could leave, which many did despite being encouraged to stay.
Many of the people whose first choice was not viable slowly left. A number tried to band together to support Pete Buttigeig, but were unable to reach the 120 threshold. Many had left by 9:45.
As the night continued interminably, people filtered out as the caucus chairs figured out how to proceed and what the math meant. This current step was to determine the allocation of the 10 delegates up for grabs in the precinct. The chair and his designated “math person” could be overheard discussing “changing the denominator.” We came to understand, unofficially, an equivalent of 2 delegates did not align with either Sanders or Warren. The chairs were determining if the allocation was 5 to Sanders and 3 to Warren, with 2 unallocated; or 6 to Sanders and 4 to Warren.
The rules set out by the Iowa Democratic Party were unclear about this, which turned out to be a common problem across precincts. I believe this is why the results were so delayed in being announced.
At 10:19, the caucus was officially returned to order for the 40 or so people who remained in the once-filled ballroom. This is when we learned that only 39 of the 184 aligned with either of the viable candidates, 8 for Sanders and 31 for Warren. The impact of these remaining 145, 18% of the participants, was the sticking point.
It was formally announced that the distribution of delegates was either 5:3 or 6:4, but which it was was unknown, unclear, and couldn’t be determined by the people in the room. As the agenda moved on to electing committee chairs, passing resolutions, and who would attend the County Democratic meeting, I left with most of the remaining caucusers around 10:30, roughly 4 hours after I arrived.
I found the caucus process to be chaotic, inefficient, informal, and inaccessible. I like the idea of preferential voting; it would be great if I could list a second choice candidate in local elections. While I see merits in being committed enough to a candidate to publicly stand for them, what about people in abusive relationships? One Iowan I talked to two days before the caucus said he believed there were more people who would privately vote for someone like Joe Biden than would publicly caucus for him. Given that only 13 people of the participants in 21st Precinct caucused for him, or 1.6%, this seems plausible. Pennsylvanians can cast absentee ballots if they can’t make it to the polls on election day; Iowans have no such option if they can’t be in their caucus location from 7:00 pm until an undetermined time. There’s a fundamental difference in how the processes are structured. In Iowa, the parties run their caucuses, determine the rules, and report the results. In Pennsylvania, this is a government process run at the county level.