Iowa Democrats prepare to respond to potential DNC calendar changes, new caucus law

By: - June 2, 2023 5:08 pm

Iowa Democrats were able to caucus outside of the state for the first time in 2020, including this gathering in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now, Iowa Democrats are proposing mail-in caucus polling, despite a new law that requires in-person caucuses. (Photo by Laina G. Stebbins/Michigan Advance)

Despite criticisms from national Democrats and Iowa Republicans, Iowa Democratic Party leaders hope their delegate selection plan will help Iowa keep its early-state position as other states fail to comply with the Democratic National Committee’s proposed calendar.

Iowa Democrats’ State Central Committee will meet Saturday morning to approve the delegate selection plan, sending it to the DNC for approval.

State party leaders introduced the 62-page plan in May that gives some details on the major changes coming to Iowa Democrats’ caucusing process. The party plans to move to a presidential preference card system, allowing caucus participants to request and return their cards by mail.

But the Democrats’ proposal left out several important details, such as information on when cards will be sent out, when results will be announced, and the date of the Iowa Democratic caucus. However, IDP chair Rita Hart has said the party plans to caucus the same night as Iowa Republicans, at least eight days before any other state contests as required by Iowa law.

Al Womble, the chair of the IDP’s Black caucus, said he understood some concerns about moving away from the traditional in-person caucus system, but that Democrats’ goal is to facilitate participation for as many Iowans as possible.

“The mail-in voting system is going to create a greater level of accessibility,” Womble said. “Not only for individuals who are differently-abled, but also for individuals who have odd working schedules, and because of those particular schedules, may not be able to participate normally in a caucus.”

Hart said these details were left out of the delegate selection plan intentionally, so that Iowa can respond to the expected “calendar chaos” in the 2024 Democratic presidential nominating cycle.

Saturday is also the deadline for New Hampshire and Georgia to prove they can comply with the DNC’s proposed calendar. In February, the national party approved the new calendar with South Carolina kicking off the 2024 nominating cycle, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan.

But New Hampshire and Georgia, both with Republican secretaries of state, said they will not be able to comply with the Democrats’ plans. New Hampshire’s state law requiring it hold the first primary in the country will trigger it moving ahead of South Carolina’s primary, state leaders said. Georgia’s Secretary of State office staff also said they do not support pushing the Democratic primary ahead, wanting both parties to hold their contests on the same day.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws committee gave both states until June 3 to make the adjustments — but Georgia and New Hampshire Democrats warned it was unlikely their Republican state officials will be willing to adjust by that deadline. In a call with reporters Tuesday, Hart said there have been no updates from the DNC on how the nominating calendar will change.

Rita Hart is chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Democratic Party)

“What I can tell you is that … the state central committee will be meeting on Saturday and we will be voting on our delegate selection plan,” Hart said. “And so I’m looking forward to meeting with our members and taking that step forward.”

New law restricts caucus rules

Iowa Democrats must also consider a new law that could hinder their proposed 2024 caucus plans. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 716 into law Thursday, legislation requiring Iowa political parties hold their caucuses in-person. Republican lawmakers said the measure is necessary because the presidential preference card system is too similar to a primary, and would force New Hampshire to move its primaries ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Prakash Kopparapu, chair of the party’s Asian and Pacific Islander caucus, said the idea that the presidential preference card system would count as a primary is “laughable.” Delegate calculations and first and second preference systems will remain in this system, he said, and the contest will still be run by the party, not the state — all aspects that differ from a primary.

“Just because we are changing the process of how you express your preference, that doesn’t mean you become a primary. I mean, it’s not that,” Kopparapu said. “… If it walks like a caucus, looks like a caucus, it’s going to be a caucus. Just because we made it easier to participate in a caucus doesn’t make it a primary. If anyone wants to say that, I don’t think that they know what they’re talking about.”

Scott Brennan, an Iowan on the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, told reporters in May he expected the measure to be challenged in court if it became law. Kopparapu said there will likely be more discussion in the Saturday SCC meeting about how the state party will respond to the new law, but that Iowa Democrats plan to move forward with the more inclusive process.

The change to a mail-in system was first proposed when Iowa Democrats joined dozens of other states competing for early state positions in 2022 DNC Rules and Bylaws committee meetings. National Democrats have long criticized the caucus process for being less accessible than primaries. The new system would address these concerns about barriers to participation, Iowa Democrats argued.

Another criticism from national Democrats is that the early states should reflect a more diverse voter base. Iowa, with an 85% white population, is less racially diverse than some of the other states tapped by the DNC to lead off the nominating calendar.

Kopparapu said Iowa Democrats plan to take an “intentional” approach to diversity in the delegate selection and caucus processes. The way Iowa is discussed nationally does not take into account the influence marginalized groups have in Iowa politics, he said. He pointed to the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition’s endorsement of now-Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s caucus win in 2020 — their path to President Joe Biden’s cabinet “started in Iowa,” he said.

“We are already playing a very active role in Iowa politics,” Kopparapu said. “And I think we just have to tell the story, media has to tell the story accurately.”

Womble said he supports the state party’s moving forward to make participation in the Democratic process easier for Iowans. His approach to the shifting elements of new state requirements and a shifting national calendar was simple: “I trust my chairwoman,” he said.

“Rita Hart is a very smart, very hard-working, down-to-the-bone Iowan, and I believe that it’s important to support her,” Womble said. “We may sometimes have differences of opinion, and you know, people certainly can put their input on this plan, but I trust my chairwoman, that she’s going to do the best that she can for Iowans who want to be able to participate in this process.”

The SCC plans to meet at 9 a.m. at the Carpenters Local 106 Hall in Altoona Saturday.

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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.