This evening, the Iowa caucuses will convene, and — at least for the Democrats — may go on far into the night. Because Republicans and Democrats conduct their meetings differently — and early reports may be very misleading, this primer on the process may help sort out what will be going on.
For the Republicans, caucuses are a lot like a regular primary election.
Republican county chairmen throughout the state of Iowa will have spent months organizing for the presidential straw vote and other party business that will be conducted on caucus night. Let’s assume that all of the precincts in the state will not only have locations for their caucuses but also volunteers and precinct committee people to man them. (That’s an assumption that will be at least partially invalidated). Let us also assume that there are no unforeseen problems with the weather, traffic and any other unknown catastrophes that may befall folks in Iowa on a dark and cold January night. Having set the scene, here is what is supposed to happen tonight.
People normally show up at their precinct caucus sites anywhere from an hour to an half an hour prior to the actual start of the caucus. These caucus sites can be as large as a school auditorium or as small as someone’s living room or den. Some caucuses have even been held in farm machine shops and bars. There will be some form of registration system set up to register and verify that the attendees can legally participate in the caucus. If they are not registered to vote, they can do so at that time. Underage attendees can participate in the caucus process if they will turn age 18 by November 4, 2008. Refreshments are frequently made available to the attendees.
As close to, but not before 7:00 PM the temporary chair (usually a sitting precinct committee person or someone designated by the county chairman) will call the precinct caucus to order and have everyone stand up and give the “pledge of allegiance” to the flag. Often times there will be a member of the clergy present to offer a prayer for the caucus goers.
The first order of business for the caucus will be to elect a “permanent caucus chair” and a “permanent caucus secretary”. The temporary chair will first call for nominations from the floor for the permanent chair of the caucus. Names will be offered from the floor and seconded. The successful candidate will immediately take control of the caucus. The newly elected caucus chair will then call for nominations for the permanent secretary of the caucus. Names will be offered from the floor and seconded. The successful candidate will immediately replace the temporary secretary of the caucus.
Next comes the presidential straw vote, the most anticipated piece of business to be conducted by the caucus. The new permanent chair will call upon representatives or supporters of the various presidential candidates to “speak” on behalf of their candidate. These representatives will be randomly selected (pulling names out of a hat) and given 5 to 10 minutes to speak on behalf of their candidate. After the last representative has spoken, the straw vote will take place.
The permanent chair and permanent secretary and others designated by the permanent chair, will distribute “colored” (color — until then — unknown to caucus participants) paper ballots for the “secret” presidential straw vote. The use of “unknown” colored ballots is to foil any potential voter fraud. The caucus attendee will then write the name of the presidential candidate they support on the “colored” paper ballot. The ballots are collected and counted by the permanent chair. Representatives of all the campaigns may be present to witness the counting of the ballots. Once the straw vote results are known the totals are announced to the precinct caucus. The results are then immediately phoned in to a special telephone number at the Republican Party of Iowa Headquarters in Des Moines.
After the straw vote you can expect a mass exodus. Most of the folks who only came for the presidential straw vote will leave. The folks who stay behind will have the responsibility of electing 2 permanent precinct committee members, delegates and alternates to the county convention and members to serve on the county convention committees of Organization, Credentials, Rules and Platform. They will also debate and forward successful resolutions to be included in the county party platform at the county conventions.
Having completed the caucus’s business the permanent chair will then call for a motion to adjourn. It will be seconded and voted upon. The meeting will be adjourned.
For the Democrats, the caucuses combine the features of marriage counseling, encounter groups, and the occasional barroom brawl. The Democrat caucus is more complicated procedurally but in some respects identical to that of the Republican caucus.
Certain requirements have to be met by an individual wishing to attend and participate in a Democrat precinct caucus. (If one or more of these qualifications are not met, the individual will not be allowed to participate. They may, however, remain at the caucus as an observer.) The caucus attendee must be a resident of the state of Iowa and the precinct in which they wish to participate, be a US citizen and otherwise eligible voter (18 by November 4, 2008), be a registered voter, registered as a Democrat (you can register at the caucus) and be in the registration line or signed in by 7:00 PM on January 3, 2008. How rigid the time enforcement will be is yet to be determined. Look for heavy Democrat participation and mass confusion at registration sites.
At 6:30 pm, or as soon as caucus registration is complete, the caucus is called to order by the temporary chair. The temporary chair will read through the caucus agenda for the attendees. Explaining that the primary purpose of the Democrat caucus will be to elect delegates, alternates and convention committee members to the county convention, discuss and adopt resolutions to be recommended to the county platform committee and elect new leadership for the precinct (the precinct committee persons who will serve as voting members of the county central committee).
The first order of business for each precinct caucus is the same as it is for the Republicans, the election of a “permanent caucus chair” and a “permanent caucus secretary”. The process is essentially identical to the one used by the Republicans.
The next order of business will be to conduct some party housekeeping. Letters read from prominent Democrats to the caucus attendees, candidate nomination papers circulated and other non-binding party business conducted.
After the party housekeeping is completed, the permanent chair will direct the attendees to separate into presidential preference groups to determine their “Viability”. Participants have 30 minutes in which to align with a presidential preference group. If more time is needed then a vote by the whole caucus may be requested.
In order to be entitled to elect delegates to the county convention, presidential candidates must demonstrate that they have a minimum number of eligible caucus attendees in their group. Based on the number of delegates that a precinct is entitled to and the total number of caucus attendees, the permanent chair will determine the “viability” of each group. The viability percentage varies from precinct to precinct depending on how many delegates are to be chosen by each precinct. This percentage can range from 15% to 25%. If a group is deemed not to be viable, they have the option of joining with a viable group, joining with another non-viable group or not joining any group. Uncommitted can also be a group. Some folks just go home.
This process of joining and re-joining groups to attain viability can go on for some time. Eventually the caucus will successfully elect delegates and alternates to the county convention. This process may seem overly complicated, but if understood is quite interesting to observe.
How the Republican and Democrat caucuses should work often conflicts with how they actually work. Weather, confusion, mischief, improvisation and a host of other potential unknown problems all have an impact on the caucuses. Somehow the parties survive the process and produce delegates to their respective county conventions. Tonight should be no different.