DMI Blog

Corinne Ramey

Distorted Democracy: How the Iowa Caucus Excludes Working People

This evening, Iowans will gather in church basements, public libraries, and schools. After months of television ads, radio spots, excessive polling, cold calling and door knocking, Iowans will finally vote in their record-breakingly early caucus and start off this election year's primary season.

But even though the results of the Iowa caucuses will be hailed as somehow indicative of the political preferences of the nation at large, Iowa's caucuses aren't exactly a shining example of American democracy at its best. As the Times reported yesterday, this political contest is structured in a way that systematically excludes working people. The article reads,

"Iowans begin the presidential selection process, making choices among the candidates that can heavily influence how the race unfolds. Now some are starting to ask why the first, crucial step in that process is also one that discourages so many people, especially working-class people, from participating."

The Times reported that the structure of the caucus system -- not only are they held at a specific time in the early evening, but they don't allow absentee voting -- prevents a whole host of people from participating in the political process. "The infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty" all are unable to vote in the caucuses. (Although, as Slate reports, things may be looking up for single parents, as Senator Barack Obama is promising free babysitting this evening. The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, is distributing green snow shovels to dig elderly Iowans out of their homes in case of bad weather.)

And it's not as if these people want to be left out of the political process. The Times interviewed a single mother in Johnston who wanted to vote but couldn't leave her children, an emergency room worker in Ames who couldn't change her shift, and a college student working at a restaurant in Des Moines. All wanted to vote, but given the inflexibility of the system won't be able to participate in tonight's caucus. “I would love to participate,” said the single mother. “Shouldn’t we at least have as much influence in this as any other citizen?” asks an Iowan serving in the National Guard in Afghanistan. A high school teacher in Iowa City questioned the fairness of the system. “It disenfranchises certain voters or makes them make choices between putting food on the table and caucusing,” he said. Ironically, even some campaign volunteers can't caucus because they have to work that evening.

Not only does the caucus system tend to exclude working people, but the strangely archaic structure of the system isn't exactly a paradigm of democracy. “First-time caucus-goers get the shock of their lives,” says Michael Mauro, Iowa’s secretary of state. “They don’t know they have to stand in a corner, and there is no secret ballot.” According to Politico, less than 10% of Iowas' voting-age population shows up for the caucuses. There are a total of 3,000 delegates, which, in 2004, averaged to about 41 caucusgoers for every delegate elected. The procedures for the Republican and Democratic caucuses also vary -- whereas Republican caucusgoers cast a vote by secret ballot and straightforward vote tabulations are reported to the media, the Democratic party uses a much more complicated system of both voting and result tabulation. As Washington Post blogger Dan Balz writes, "In a primary, voters quietly fill out their ballots and leave. In the caucuses, they are required to come and stay for several hours, and there are no secret ballots. In the presence of friends, neighbors and occasionally strangers, Iowa Democrats vote with their feet, by raising their hands and moving to different parts of the room to signify their support for one candidate or another."

Iowa is also largely white and rural, and not reflective of America as a whole. As DMI wrote on, corn fields and tractors have been given a disproportionate amount of airtime, despite the fact that we live in a largely urban nation.

"In today's presidential campaign, America is all heartland -- tractor pulls, county fairs, town halls and truck stops. Candidates scramble for photo ops in plaid, stump in wheat fields and scarf down corn dogs. Our country, it seems, is all country. Yet we are an urban nation. More than 80% of Americans live in cities. Urbanites drive 90% of our economy. In pandering to rural voters, presidential candidates ignore the bread and butter issues that most Americans deal with every day -- housing, transportation, infrastructure, crime, education."

Not only is Iowa more rural than the rest of the country, but rural voters tend to have more impact within Iowa itself. For example, in rural Fremont County, it took only 22 caucusgoers to elect a delegate, whereas in more urban counties (especially ones with universities or large student populations), it can take several times that amount. In Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa, it took about 80 caucusgoers to elect each delegate. The result is a system that tends to give rural and older voters a disproportionate amount of political influence.

So tonight, when TV reporters alternate preliminary vote tallies with small talk about the freezing Iowa weather, it's important to keep in mind that the results of this overhyped political event aren't all that they're chalked up to be. Unfortunately for Americans -- and especially working Iowans -- even free snow shovels, sandwich platters, and babysitting aren't enough to eliminate the systematic inequality of the Iowa caucuses.

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:09 AM, Jan 03, 2008 in Democracy
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