The Iowa caucus: No one shuts up about it, and no one knows how it works. An exaggeration, perhaps, but for an event that captures the nation—and inspires satire about Iowans everywhere—it comes off a bit ironic that most don’t actually know how it goes down. It’s a mysterious process wherein the white farmers from Nowhere, Iowa get together, maybe yell a bit, and then decide for the nation who matters most in the upcoming presidential election.
On Monday evening, I sat in my childhood elementary gymnasium and talked about the weather and Republicans while the Bernie Sanders group chanted “Bernie!” at the amused, older crowd across the room supporting Hillary Clinton.
I am, in short, an insider into this weird-as-heck political process, and here’s some things you should know about how a Democrat caucuses works:
- It’s disorganized as all get-out. I arrived at my precinct a half-hour early on Feb. 1 to sign in and select an entry poll candidate. Finding where to sit was easy: lunch tables were pushed against two walls with Hillary and Bernie signs adorning each side. A few tables sat in the middle for the O’Malley and undecided crowd. Once the proceedings began, the instructions came to count up and then participate in persuading the opposition to swing to your side. Easy enough, but then the statistical information on the 15 percent threshold needed to make a group viable for a delegate and how many delegates each candidate can get if they can reach a certain percentage—it all becomes a bit much to take in. And don’t even get me started on the bargaining for delegates that groups engage in.
- A few strong voices can be influential. The pride of my eldest sister’s night was convincing three former students of hers to move from the non-viable O’Malley camp to support Bernie at her caucus. We were a meeker bunch at my caucus, hesitant to push other attendees on how they should vote. However, a few people from each side got up and worked the crowd for weak spots. Having a good debater on the side of your candidate could push the results to your advantage. In my precinct, Bernie supporters were one person away from having an even split of delegates six to six. If the Bernie group managed to convince one more person to that side, they would have created an even-delegate split.
- What is this about a coin flip? Did I mention caucuses are confusing? I’m going to tell you a secret: The numbers displayed on your TV Monday night, numbering 600 some votes each for Hillary and Bernie, were a representation of state delegates each side was supposed to get. What I and other attendees were determining at each precinct was the number of county delegates. The amount of county delegates in all 99 counties around the state are much higher than the numbers displayed. In situations where the numbers of Bernie and Hillary supporters were equal and there were an odd number of delegates, which occurred at six precincts, they flipped a coin for who would get the extra delegate. While a lot of fuss was generated about this, the flips were statistically insignificant and had little impact on the election. A poor system? Yes. Election upset? No.
- White people everywhere. My county as a whole was no anomaly. In fact, our results matched up with the statewide vote, with Cruz leading over Trump and Clinton edging out Sanders. Another way we represented the whole was in how white the group was. At my caucus, a friend of mine’s mom was the only person of color in the entire room, and caucuses around the state surely looked just the same. Iowa has a very high percentage of white voters and few urban areas. Tell me again how we’re supposed to represent the nation?
- The process is long and the demand for in-person participation limiting. The twenty-something guy sitting next to me at the caucus had asked off work for the evening to attend the caucus and I personally made a big endeavor to travel back home so I could participate in my caucus. These kinds of hoops, necessary to go through to participate, are detrimental to those who can’t get the evening off to spend two hours or more at a caucus and restrict an important sector of voters who attend school and work jobs that don’t conform to the 9-5 work schedule.
- But – caucuses are actually really fun and exciting. As I raced home to beat the storm Monday night, I was bombarded with texts from family who had voted and friends sharing their precinct results and experiences talking with other people. My father and sister volunteered as a delegate and an alternate for the county-wide caucuses in March. Friends were excitedly reporting large turnouts on social media. A group of women and I discussed politics in the lulls and we felt like we were part of something impactful and important.
The caucus system is messy and restrictive. It’s hard to attend and confusing. Iowa, the focus of undue national attention, does not have a population representative of America. The part I like best, the sense making a difference in the presidential election, is a privilege I uniquely reap through the accident of living in Iowa. I wish for a system in place nationwide that generates the same kind of enthusiasm and vigor about an electoral process found in small town Monroe, Iowa. But this it won’t happen until the nation seriously reconsiders the electoral process and creates a fairer system.