Caucusing at work? DNC OKs Iowa plan to hold 'satellite' caucuses after virtual plan nixed

USA Today Politics 2 months ago

DES MOINES — Iowa Democrats will be able to petition the state party to host "satellite" caucuses at nursing homes, work sites, out-of-state college campuses and even overseas in 2020. 

The plan was approved by the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee on Friday, just weeks after the same committee rejected Iowa's plan to host telephone-based virtual caucuses. 

The Iowa Democratic Party proposed its virtual caucuses as a way to meet a DNC mandate that caucus states find some way to allow people to participate without being physically present on caucus night in an effort to make the process more inclusive and accessible. 

But that plan was rejected earlier this month — less than five months before the caucuses — because of unresolved cybersecurity concerns. The committee said there was no technology-based system that it would approve.

Iowa Democrats scrambled to come up with a replacement plan that could still expand access, considering such things as absentee ballots and proxy votes. 

Though the plan approved Friday by the committee still will require Iowans to be physically present at a caucus, committee members and Iowa Democrats said they were pleased it does something to expand access to people who may not be able to travel to a traditional precinct site. 

“This is a solid plan, and it allows us to meet the goals we have set as a party," state party chairman Troy Price said Thursday as he described the proposal on a call with Iowa's State Central Committee. "More people will be able to participate. More people will have the tools they need to participate. We are making the largest investment that we have ever made to ensure the accessibility of our process. And we will be living up to our ultimate goal, which is to ensure that we have the foundation we need to elect Democrats up and down the ticket next November.”

The state party tested the satellite program in 2016. Groups of people who "demonstrated a clear need" were able to petition the party to add nontraditional caucus locations. Four sites were approved: The Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, a senior-living facility in Iowa City, and the behavioral health institutes in Woodward and Glenwood. 

Those caucuses were held at the same day and time as that year's traditional caucuses.

Price said Thursday that petitioners for the 2020 caucuses who show a demonstrable need may get approval to have their satellite caucuses at a different time. 

"It still has to take place on the same day, and we prefer it to take place as close to (7 p.m.) as possible," he said. 

Price said he would convene a satellite caucus review committee made up of State Central Committee members who have pledged to remain neutral in the caucuses. Any Iowa Democrat would be able to petition that committee to host a satellite caucus location before Nov. 18. The sites could be in-state or out-of-state locations.

The committee will approve those petitions by Dec. 16 and make the list public by Dec. 18, he said.

The satellite caucuses would operate like traditional Democratic precinct caucuses, with participants making first and second choices.

To measure results, each of Iowa's four congressional districts would be given one additional "county." Results from all the satellite locations in that congressional district would feed into that "county" and then state delegate equivalents would be apportioned out. 

The state party will also expand its staff "thanks to the support of the DNC" to make the process run more smoothly. The team will include a new caucus accessibility director and two caucus accessibility organizers. Price said part of the new jobs will be ensuring that anyone who wants to attend a precinct caucus has the resources to do so. 

Price also said the party has already begun having conversations with the DNC about 2024.

"The folks at the DNC have assured me that they will be working with us starting immediately after the election next November to develop a virtual caucus system that can be secure and can be ready for the 2024 cycle,"  he said. 

The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee co-chair, Jim Roosevelt, reiterated that intention Friday. 

“Following the presidential election I will urge the DNC leadership to work with the caucus states and provide resources to try to develop a secure system for absentee voting," he said. "And we will do that with a three-year lead time instead of an eight-month lead time. And we may well also see evolving technology by then.”

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