House approves bill requiring in-person caucuses

By: - May 1, 2023 6:00 pm

People get signed in and prepare to caucus Feb. 3, 2020 at the Muslim Community Organization in Des Moines. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

House Republicans approved a measure Monday they say will keep Iowa’s caucuses first, but that Democrats say is an overreach by state government.

House File 716 passed the House on a 61-33 vote. The bill requires party caucuses that are part of a presidential nominating process to be held in person. The measure is a direct response to the Iowa Democratic Party’s proposal to allow absentee participation in 2024.

The state party announced plans in 2022 to move to a vote-by-mail process in an effort to retain the caucuses’ first-in-the-nation status. Despite the proposal, the Democratic National Committee approved a new primary calendar in February, with South Carolina at the lead followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan.

Iowa Democrats said they plan to follow state law, which requires presidential-preference caucuses to be held before any other states’ contests. State Democrats also said they intend to move forward with the proposed new caucus system.

Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, said Monday the bill was an overstep by state government.

“I don’t even know why we need this bill,” Nielsen said. “Our caucuses have plenty of integrity, they run pretty decently when our national parties stay out of it. And I believe that this is just more of the same that we’ve seen this session, overreach and micromanagement into things that really run just fine without the state’s interference.”

In addition to reporting issues during the 2020 Democratic caucuses, national Democrats have long criticized caucuses for being less inclusive and accessible than primaries, as the participation requirements are prohibitive to voters such as people with disabilities and child care or work obligations, who may have difficulties going to an in-person event on a winter evening.

But Republican lawmakers said the changes Democrats are proposing could threaten Iowa’s position as first outside of the DNC calendar. New Hampshire has a state law requiring it to hold the first primary in the nation. Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said in committee meetings that national and local leaders have told him Iowa Democrats’ proposed mail-in caucus system would count as a primary under New Hampshire’s definition, and the Granite State would have to move its date ahead of Iowa’s.

“I couldn’t disagree more that there is no problem,” Kaufmann said Monday. “This bill fixes it.”

The Iowa Democratic Party said in a statement that the party “will do what’s best for Iowa and that means moving forward with the most inclusive caucus process in Iowa history. ”

In addition to requiring in-person party caucuses, House lawmakers also changed the original bill’s requirement that caucusgoers be registered with a political party at least 70 days ahead of caucus night to participate in that party’s caucus. The new version allows each party’s state central committee to set the rules, including voter registration requirements, for precinct caucus participation. Kaufmann said the change would give parties more “flexibility” to dictate the terms of their participation. Currently, voters may register to vote on caucus night or change their party registration to participate

Beyond caucus law, lawmakers also changed a provision for resolving ties in primaries for legislative seats. Currently, the process if a tie is reached is to draw a name out of a hat, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, which Kaufmann said “seems ridiculous.” The new language would allow party committee members within a legislative district to meet and determine who wins a tie.

The bill also eliminates the requirement for Iowa’s secretary of state to use the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) database in updating its own statewide voter registration system.

The bill moves to the Senate.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.