Iowa Democrats Propose Allowing ‘Virtual’ Caucus Participation in 2020 First

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic leaders in Iowa on Monday proposed a major change in the state’s presidential caucuses by allowing a form of absentee voting next year that aims to expand participation in the first 2020 nominating contest.

It would let Iowa Democrats take part via telephone or online in one of six "virtual caucuses" during the week before the traditional Iowa caucuses. That would allow people to get involved even if they can’t attend the traditional gatherings in person because of a disability, work, parenting or another reason.

If adopted it “will be the most significant changes to the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses since their inception in 1972,” Troy Price, the state party’s chairman, told reporters on a conference call.

The proposal, which still needs to be approved by a central party committee in Iowa and the Democratic National Committee, calls for the virtual meetings to generate roughly 10 percent of the delegates that will be awarded from each of the state’s four congressional districts. That could mean that virtual participation will carry less voting weight than in-person participation.

The results of the virtual caucuses won’t be made public until caucus night, but the presidential campaigns will be able to learn who has already participated and take those people off their get-out-the-vote lists.

Quirky System

The in-person portion of the Iowa caucuses is currently scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020. The quaint, quirky and often-criticized tradition will play out in school gymnasiums, fire stations, community centers, and other meeting places in nearly 1,700 precincts. The requirements and limits often mean fewer people take part in caucuses than in primaries, which are more like traditional elections.

The proposed changes come after the DNC directed states that hold caucuses to expand voter access, including some form of absentee voting. Iowa Democrats also are confronting a potential threat to the state’s presidential nominating preeminence.

In early March 2020, California is expected to be among multiple states voting in what’s shaping up to be a “Super Tuesday” round of contests that could prove decisive in the nomination battle. With early voting increasingly common, primary voters in California are now scheduled to start casting ballots the same day Iowans attend caucuses.

Election officials in New Hampshire, who have traditionally zealously guarded the status of their first-in-the-nation primary, have been briefed on Iowa’s plan and there is no expectation it will trigger that state to move its voting date, Price said.

Democratic strategists in the state say they’re expecting historic turnout fueled by a sprawling field of candidates and strong anti-Trump sentiment.

The turnout record for the state’s Democratic caucuses -- roughly 240,000 -- was set on a bitterly cold night in January 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois pulled out an upset victory over then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

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