OPINION: Systemic Racism Makes the Iowa Caucuses Undemocratic

Cover photo from Flickr 

Mary McLoughlin
Opinion Editor

The 2020 Iowa caucuses were an utter disaster. That take is more fact than opinion. A smartphone app malfunctioned, which delayed the reporting process. Phone lines were busy for hours. Caucus moderators made rounding errors. But even if the Iowa Democratic Party could have figured out how to count the votes, the caucusing process would have still been largely dysfunctional. 

Right now, the caucus system functions by bringing voters into school gyms and cafeterias and allowing the same peer pressure that rules middle school to rule democracy. Essentially, voters gather at a caucus site and stand in mobs based on which candidate they like until candidates without enough voters (less than 15% of voters) are deemed unviable and are then eliminated. 

Then, voters who support candidates deemed viable must scramble to convince voters with unviable candidates to join their side. Eventually, candidates are awarded delegates proportionally based on the number of voters they end up with. At the end of the caucuses, Iowa awards a total of 41 delegates that make up about 1% of total delegates nationwide.

Though 1% of voters is quantitatively insignificant, the Iowa caucuses generate such a buzz because of the predictive nature of them. Since 2000, every Democratic nominee has also won the Iowa caucuses. Additionally, the Iowa caucuses also impact campaign’s abilities to generate donations and fundraising. 

Leading up to the caucuses, Democrats have criticized the disproportionate influence of states like Iowa in determining the elections. A study by political economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff found that primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire can have up to twenty times the influence of voters in states with later primaries, largely due to the amount of energy and advertising candidates put into these states. 

While it’s troubling that any voter has more say than others in a democracy, the undue influence of Iowa and New Hampshire is especially problematic because of the disproportionate whiteness of both of these states. Additionally, neither state has a significant urban population, which privileges the needs of rural and suburban Americans over those who live in cities. 

Julian Castro, former Democratic presidential candidate, criticized the Democratic party for its hypocrisy in continuing the caucus system. He argued that Democrats “complain about Republicans suppressing the votes of people of color, and then begin our nominating contest in two states that hardly have people of color.”

To get to participate in a caucus, a person must have never had a felony, must be able to get off of work or childcare responsibilities for the hours required to caucus, must be able to stand for hours, and must speak English fluently enough to navigate the chaos of caucusing. 

In an article for Vox, Ian Millhiser argues that “Iowa makes it needlessly difficult to vote, and that needless difficulty disenfranchises parents, low-income people, people without control over their job schedules, and pretty much anyone who isn’t determined enough to sacrifice hours to an arcane and anti-democratic process.”

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In Iowa, no person with a felony conviction can vote. According to the Sentencing Project, this excludes 42,000 people and 10% percent of the Black voting-age population from participating in democracy. In a state that is already 90% white, suppressing 10% of black voters through disproportionately punitive criminal justice policy ensures that underrepresented groups are further marginalized. 

Though party officials have attempted to make the 2020 caucuses accessible by offering accommodations for the first time, disability activists have critiqued this process for either putting too much of the onus on people with disabilities or offering incomplete accommodations that did not fully address the needs of individuals trying to caucus. 

Barriers to caucusing include the inaccessibility of the buildings, lack of transportation, the demands of standing for the hours it takes to caucus, the high sensory environment of caucuses, and the lack of ASL translators. Jane Hudson, the executive director of Disability Rights Ohio told the New York Times that “Maybe they [party officials] feel like they’re being inclusive, but I think they’re really ignoring a lot of underrepresented people.”

Despite efforts to increase voter turnout in the 2020 caucuses, Vox reports that this year’s caucus turnout largely matched numbers for the 2016 caucuses. 

Right before the caucuses, Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg tweeted, “In the face of unprecedented challenges, we need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect.” 

Critics were quick to point out that White farmers in the Midwest are no more American than people of color and immigrants who are often displaced from narratives of nationality and patriotism.

As NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherriyln Ifill argues, the use of the word “heartland” often comes with a coded racism that “cloaks white mid-Western communities in a gauzy innocence and authenticity.” The truth is, our leaders have almost always been shaped by whiteness and privilege. Continuing to privilege predominantly White and rural voices perpetuates the racism that has given White Midwesterners a monopoly on the “American” vote and the “American” heart. 

New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt points out that, demographically, Iowa and New Hampshire have the same percent of people of color as the U.S. did in 1870. If we allow the White version of what America used to be more than a century ago to set the policy agenda for our future, then we cannot expect progressive and anti-racist plans capable of bringing us into a better future. 

Democrats cannot claim to be a party premised on achieving racial equality when their election process is determined by White voters choosing from White frontrunners. As long as White able-bodied voters are allowed to set the agenda for our elections, whiteness and other systems of supremacy will secure a privileged position that makes democracy impossible.

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