An open letter to the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party about the Iowa caucus

While the 2020 Iowa caucuses are still fresh in our minds, I want to talk to you about how we could do a better job of not just choosing a Presidential nominee, but also allowing Iowa voters to participate in it.

This is not a complaint about the software problems that occurred on caucus night.  I’m sure others have made their voices heard on that.  Nor is this a rant about Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, though I absolutely do have a rant about that ready to go whenever you’re ready to hear it.  I want to focus on the things that the Iowa Democratic Party can do something about, within the confines of existing law (or at least incremental improvements to existing law).

  1. The existing system provides a proportional representation result.  That is, if a candidate has 51% support among Iowa Democrats, we expect him or her to end up with 51% of Iowa’s delegates to the national convention, not all of them.  Proportional representation is a good thing that should be preserved, and extended.
  2. We should choose the nominee by one person one vote, rather than distorting the process by awarding delegates at the precinct level.
    • It makes no sense to set a predetermined delegate count for a precinct based on past performance, rather than on how many people showed up tonight.
    • It makes no sense to determine winners and losers by precinct, where small random sampling error distorts the result, rather than statewide.
    • There is a voting system that allows for Proportional Representation:  the Hare system, also knows as Single Transferable Vote.  Voters fill out a paper ballot on which they mark their preference for each candidate, 1 for their first choice, 2 for their second, and so on.  I can describe the details elsewhere; suffice to say that no one’s vote is wasted because a voters can always help out his or her second or third choice candidates.  There is also no incentive to vote for someone other than your genuine first choice, no need for strategic voting, e.g., “I have to vote for my second choice because my first choice can’t win.”  Your second choice vote is counted only if your first choice has lost.
    • Ballots should be counted state-wide, not by precinct or county or district.  If we must have a result rapidly (which would be important to media, but not to voters), we can talk about technical means of transmitting ballots to the IDP on election night.  We could learn a lot from the experience of Cambridge, MA, which has used STV for local elections for generations, and finishes the count on election night.
    • Note that the presence of paper ballots makes a manual recount possible, even desirable.  We should popularize Single Transferable Vote by counting our ballots in public in front of observers.
  3. We have to eliminate the barriers to participation by people who work evenings, or who cannot access child care.  We should have a long period of early voting, encourage early voting, and make it possible to vote by mail.
  4. The 2020 caucuses consumed thousands of hours of volunteer labor that could have been directed toward defeating the Republicans.  Worse, volunteers aren’t necessarily accountable for errors and omissions on caucus night.  All the essential functions of the caucus should be done by paid IDP staff.  If that means we can’t have as many precincts, good.
  5. Nothing is more of a drain on voter participation than knowing that there are superdelegates who can ignore the result of the popular vote.  There must be no more superdelegates going forward.

I want to see you lead the Iowa Democratic Party in this direction.  And I call on my fellow Democrats to insist on it, as a condition of their support in the next leadership election.

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