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Iowa Democrats make final plea for early caucuses

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FILE - A Precinct 68 Iowa Caucus voter holds a presidential preference card as the night of caucusing gets underway at the Knapp Center on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020. Iowa Democrats are proposing two key changes that they hope will increase participation and avoid the chaos that marred their 2020 caucuses. One change would allow Iowa Democrats to submit presidential preference cards by mail or in person before caucus night.

Iowa Democrats argued Thursday the state offers a path to victory for long-shot candidates and opportunities for meaningful conversations with rural Americans and Iowans from every walk of life as they made their pitch to hold onto their place at the front of the party’s presidential nominating calendar.

State party officials presented proposed changes for caucuses to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules & Bylaws Committee in Washington in an effort to hold onto their first-in-the-nation status.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn told committee members Iowa presents a “unique opportunity” for presidential candidates to connect with voters distributed across urban, rural and suburban areas in a “presidential swing state” where a majority of congressional districts are competitive.

“A robust Democratic nomination process in the state introduces voters to candidates and surrogates early, and the organizations they help build in Iowa keep us competitive in the general election,” Wilburn said.

Iowa is among 16 states and Puerto Rico vying to be included in Democrats’ early presidential nominating window ahead of Super Tuesday in early March 2024.

The DNC rules committee voted in April to reopen the presidential nominating window, forcing all interested states — including the current early-nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — to apply for a spot.

The move came after the current lineup of early-nominating states — led by the largely rural and predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire — came under increasing fire for a lack of diversity that many Democrats say doesn’t represent the party’s true strength. And it follows a chaotic 2020 caucus night for Iowa Democrats when a smartphone app — meant to make reporting results easier — failed. As a result, the official Democratic caucus results were not reported for several weeks.

Iowa Democratic Party officials touted the state’s pockets of diversity and argued Iowa serves as an inexpensive and accessible playing field for lesser-known candidates to establish themselves.

“There are diverse communities living, thriving and dealing with complex political issues in both urban and rural areas of Iowa,” Wilburn said. Party officials played a video of Black, brown and LGBTQ candidates and party leaders talking about their caucus experience and the importance of the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa is the sixth-least diverse state in the country. Wilburn, though, pointed to the urban demographics of Iowa’s larger public school districts, notably Des Moines. The district, Iowa’s largest, reported that among its 31,023 enrolled students in the last school year, 34.7 percent were white, 29.2 percent Hispanic, 20.6 percent Black, 8 percent Asian and 6.8 percent multiracial, Wilburn said.

“When taken individually, these districts look a great deal more like America as a whole and reflect the future of Iowa,” he said.

He also cited figures from the Iowa State Data Center, stating 13 of Iowa’s 99 counties have a Latinx population of more than 10 percent. Wilburn, too, told DNC members that it is essential “potential presidential candidates be tested on their ability to communicate with rural voters across this entire population.”

“One of the forms of diversity that Iowa brings, frankly, is the rural working-class diversity. And it’s a group of folks Democrats have forgotten how to talk to,” Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair and the only Iowan on the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee, told The Gazette ahead of Thursday’s presentation. “ … And if we can’t figure that out, under the Electoral College system, we’ll be doomed to win popular votes and lose the Electoral College. And that’s criminal, and that’s on us if we can’t figure that out.”

National Democrats, too, have complained the party caucuses — compared with state primaries — are too opaque and inaccessible, requiring in-person attendance that can make them difficult for Iowans who work late shifts, lack access to child care or transportation or have health or mobility problems.

To make their caucuses more accessible, Iowa Democrats proposed eliminating the requirement for in-person attendance and are reorganizing the caucus practice of identifying candidates’ “viability” over multiple rounds.

Under the proposed changes, an Iowa Democrat would request a presidential preference card in the mail and would have 14 to 28 days to either mail it back or return it in person caucus night.

On caucus night, the Iowa Democratic Party would report the results publicly.

The caucuses themselves would focus primarily on conducting party business, such as electing delegates.

The state party also would contract with either a DNC-approved election vendor or with a county auditor or the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office to ensure a fair and trustworthy process.

Iowa House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst, of Windsor Heights, told the committee keeping Iowa first would also help ensure Iowa Democrats stay competitive up and down the ballot — noting Republicans have already voted to keep Iowa at the front of the line in the GOP’s presidential selection process.

“Every time a Republican candidate comes to Iowa and visits the district of one of my members or one of my candidates, they’re building an organization on the other side and they’re building enthusiasm and engagement among voters,” she said.

DNC rules committee members also questioned how New Hampshire would react to the proposed changes, and whether the caucuses would in effect function as a primary.

New Hampshire state law requires its secretary of state to set its presidential primary before any other “similar” primary contest. Iowa’s caucuses have traditionally been different enough from New Hampshire’s primaries not to conflict.

Iowa Code requires political parties hold caucuses at least eight days before any other state’s primary. It does not say how those caucuses must be conducted.

“We are focused on complying with our state law, which mandates that we are a caucus,” Brennan told fellow rules committee members. “And we believe that what we have proposed meets the requirements” of state law.

Members of the committee expressed appreciation of the Iowa delegation’s proposed changes.

“I really applaud the Iowa delegation for a willingness to rethink the caucus process,” one committee member said. “I’ve been fairly critical about Iowa. So I think that was a needed recognition.”

The DNC rules committee is expected to meet in early August and recommend a slate of up to five states for the early nominating window. The full DNC would then convene in Sept. to vote.

Asked what Iowa Democrats would do should they lose their first-in-the-nation spot, Konfrst replied: “We didn’t come here to run for second place. We came here to be first and to remain first, and that’s really what we’re focused on,” she said.

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