The Iowa caucuses: Much too silly

MUCH TOO SILLY….In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” King Arthur and his knights come across Camelot, and at least initially, couldn’t be more pleased. After thinking it over, and considering exactly what goes on inside Camelot, Arthur concludes, “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”

I’ve come to think of the Iowa caucuses in the same light. Before the nominating process begins in earnest, Iowa has a certain Midwestern charm, filled with voters who appreciate their role in picking the next president. Like Camelot, it’s something to look forward to. But as we finally come upon Jan. 3, and get a look at what’s involved, it’s pretty obvious that the Iowa caucuses are much too silly.

Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: 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.

As in years past, voters must present themselves in person, at a specified hour, and stay for as long as two. […] 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.

“It disenfranchises certain voters or makes them make choices between putting food on the table and caucusing,” said Tom Lindsey, a high school teacher in Iowa City. Mr. Lindsey plans to attend this year, but his neighbors include a cook who cannot slip away from his restaurant job on Thursday night and a mother who must care for her autistic child.

Voting by absentee ballot is prohibited. There are no secret ballots, a bedrock democratic principle. The notion of “one-person, one-vote” does not really apply (the NYT noted that votes are weighted according to a precinct’s past level of participation).

There’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether Iowa deserves to go before the other 49 other states, in every presidential campaign, forever. But this is a different question altogether: if Iowa is going to go first, could they at least use a reasonable process that encourages Iowans to participate?

Worse, Jeff Greenfield adds that Dems have actually made participating more difficult than Republicans.

The Republican Party, by contrast, has recognized that the change in function, from local party business to presidential contest, requires a change in form. The GOP caucus process is straightforward and simple: You show up, perhaps listen to appeals from candidate’s supporters, and then write the name of your choice on a blank piece of paper and drop it into a box. The results are phoned into headquarters and tabulated. That’s it—one person, one vote; the candidate with the most votes wins.

But the Democrats have a totally different thing going on; one that discards at least two key elements of an open, fair system…. When you show up at a Democratic caucus, you and your fellow participants divide up into different corners of a room, based on who you are for. You don’t submit a secret ballot; you stand up to be publicly counted. What if you’re in a union and want to pick someone your union hasn’t endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching you from across the room? Or the person who holds your mortgage? Or your spouse? Tough. “It is free, it is open, and you are there of your own volition,” says Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Democratic Party’s director of communications. But of course, you are also in a polling place on election day of your own volition — and most free societies think that it’s a good idea to let voters keep their choices to themselves.

And just to add insult to injury, no one is allowed to know exactly how many Iowans actually voted for the different candidates — the Iowa Democratic Party gets the numbers, but keeps them private. (The results that designate the “winner” only reflect the share of state delegates each candidate has won.) As Greenfield noted, it means “a candidate who turned out more total supporters than anyone else, across the state, could wind up in second or third place — and no one will know.”

A secretive, undemocratic process, that avoids democratic norms, and discourages participation?

Like I said, it’s a silly place.