Iowa Democrats move ahead with mail-in plan for 2024 caucuses

GOP bill advances requiring in-person caucuses for delegate selection

By: - May 3, 2023 4:23 pm

Iowa Democrats allowed out-of-state "satellite" caucuses in 2020, like this one in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in an effort to expand participation to Iowans working or attending school out of state. (Photo by Laina G. Stebbins/Michigan Advance)

Despite criticisms from both the Democratic National Committee and Iowa Republicans, the Iowa Democratic Party is moving forward with its plans to hold the 2024 caucuses before any other states’ contests, and to use a mail-in system.

The Iowa Democratic Party released its 62-page delegate selection plan Wednesday. The party will submit the plan to the DNC for approval following a 30-day public comment period. Democratic caucus participants will select their preferred candidate on a presidential preference card, which can be requested by mail or through an online portal. The card can be returned by mail or at a secure dropbox location.

On caucus nights, precinct caucuses will conduct party business, separate from the presidential nominating contest. Caucus results will not be tabulated at the precinct events.

Some details of that new plan — including when cards will be sent to caucus participants and when results will be announced — are still unknown, because of the “chaos” of the Democratic presidential nominating calendar heading into 2024, Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart said. However, Hart said Iowa Democrats plan to caucus the same night as Iowa Republicans in accordance with state law, at least eight days before any other states’ contests.

“We know that this draft delegate selection plan will raise a few questions,” Hart said in a news conference Wednesday. “But it’s designed to provide flexibility in the Iowa Democratic Party to respond to this calendar chaos.”

Iowa Democrats say DNC’s calendar changes ‘will not hold’

The state party first announced its plans to transition from traditional, in-person caucuses to a presidential preference card system in 2022 when the DNC announced it was taking another look at the early state lineup.

National Democrats have long criticized the caucuses for being less accessible than primaries. Even though Iowa Democrats proposed the mail-in system addressing some of those concerns, the DNC still booted Iowa from its leading spot in the presidential nominating calendar.

In February, the DNC announced South Carolina, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan, will kick off the Democratic nominating cycle beginning in 2024.

But Iowa Democrats told reporters that proposed calendar is not final, despite approval from the full DNC. New Hampshire’s state law requires it to hold the first primary contest in the country, which state leaders say would force New Hampshire Democrats to move their contest ahead of South Carolina. Georgia state officials have said they would not support putting Democratic and Republican contests on different dates.

While the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee gave both states extensions to make the adjustments, Democrats in both states said it was unlikely their Republican state leaders will agree to make the changes.

“No matter what Iowa Democrats do, this calendar will not hold,” Scott Brennan, an Iowan on the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, said.

New Hampshire and Georgia have a June 3 deadline to submit evidence to the committee that they will be able to comply with the DNC’s requirements. Iowa’s delegate selection plan is also due June 3, though Hart has requested additional time. With that deadline and potential changes to the proposed nominating calendar in mind, Hart said the IDP’s delegate selection plan will give the party “flexibility” to adjust.

“Until we have clarity on what this calendar looks like, we don’t have a menu of options to consider,” Hart said. “Unfortunately, we cannot fast forward to the end of this process.”

Iowa Republicans advance bill requiring in-person caucuses

Even if Iowa were to get approval from the DNC to take back its first-in-the-nation spot, Iowa Republicans said the move from in-person to mail-in caucuses puts both parties at risk of losing their first-in-the-nation position.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he discussed the IDP’s plans with national and local New Hampshire leaders who told him “when you do mail-in, it’s a primary.” New Hampshire’s state law would require it to set its contest date before Iowa’s contest, Kaufmann said. House Republicans approved House File 716 Monday, and the Senate Ways and Means Committee approved it Wednesday.

The bill would require Iowa political parties to meet in person at precinct caucuses to select their delegates as a part of the presidential nominating process. Legislative Democrats opposed the bill, although some said the amended proposal would not necessarily prohibit the party’s mail-in plan.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the legislation was a “blatant violation of the First Amendment,” in limiting Democrats’ ability to decide how to assemble and petition the government. Brennan, a Des Moines attorney, also told reporters he expects the measure will be challenged in court if signed into law.

But Republicans say the measure is necessary to preserve the Iowa caucuses. Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement that Iowa Democrats’ commitment to pursuing the mail-in caucus plan is “a new low in political gamesmanship.”

“It is becoming clear to me that keeping Iowa first is not the goal of the Iowa Democrats,” Kaufmann said in a statement. “The fact that they continue to keep pushing their primary-in-all-but-name proposal gives the appearance that the Iowa Democrats are hellbent on tanking the entire caucus. They’ve turned what used to be a process that we did together into all out political warfare.”

Hart said she has not had discussions with New Hampshire on the potential conflicts in state law arising from the party’s delegate selection plan.

Other Democrats, including House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, said the legislation may not impede Iowa Democrats from using a mail-in caucus system. She told reporters Monday that Democrats could meet both DNC and state law requirements by “decoupling” the processes of collecting presidential preference cards and delegate selection. Precinct caucuses on caucus night would still require in-person attendance to select delegates to send to county conventions.

However, Hart said IDP officials did not take the legislation into consideration when drafting their plan. She said she is “not paying a lot of attention” to the bill, but said that the party was committed to making the caucuses more accessible. She also expressed doubt about Republicans’ “concerns” about Democrats’ caucus plans, as IDP was not consulted on the legislation.

“I’m the Democratic Party chair, it is not my concern what the Republicans think we ought to do with our caucuses,” Hart said. “So you know, they’re going to pass their legislation, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. We did not have input into that, and that’s disappointing. But we’re going to continue on this path to make sure that we have an accessible process that allows Iowa Democrats to participate in a caucus process that is going to give them the voice that they deserve.”

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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.