How The Iowa Caucus Is Different From Other Elections

Tonight, Republicans in Iowa will cast their votes for the party's nominee in the 2012 election. They'll do it via caucus, which you've probably heard is a little different from run-of-the-mill voting. I learned just how different when I caucused in 2008.

First of all, as Talking Points Memo explains, rules for Republican and Democratic caucuses are a little different. So Republicans tonight will be having a bit of a different experience than I had as a Democratic voter in 2008. I'll spell out the distinctions in more detail below. And now, here's how the Iowa caucus is different from voting in other states:

There are speeches.

In most states, you aren't allowed to campaign near polling places on Election Day. But on caucus day in Iowa, campaigning is part of the deal. In both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, a representative for each candidate is permitted to give a brief speech before voting begins. TPM notes that the speaker is "usually a local supporter, volunteering for the task." In '08, the speaker for Obama in our precinct was the owner of our local liquor store, who wore a wine cork in his hair while listing the various groups of people Obama would "bring to the table." On the one hand, he provided few specifics about Obama's platform. On the other hand, we were predisposed to like him because he sold us beer.

It's a public event.

No voting booths here. At the Iowa caucus, you vote out in the open. Republicans keep things a little more private than Democrats. They'll vote by writing the name of their preferred candidate down on a piece of paper (close misspellings will be counted, but expect some fun debates over the validity of "N00t Gingrutch" and "Ritt Momney"). The Des Moines Register is reporting that caucusers at some polling places will vote by show of hands, but a representative of the Iowa GOP told me over the phone that all polling places would use written ballots.

The Democratic caucus, though, is way more of a shitshow. At least in my polling place in '08, everyone was instructed to stand in a group with fellow supporters of their candidate. Groups were counted, and then any group that didn't have at least 15% of the total caucus-goers had the opportunity to split up, with its members joining the groups of their second-choice candidates. The results of this were complex and interesting: for one thing, you could vote for a fringe candidate as a sort of statement, at least to those at your polling place, and then cast your actual vote for a more viable second choice. Also, an important part of the caucus was attempting to lure second-choice voters into your group (I heard of baked goods being offered to defectors at some polling places, though I didn't witness this). And finally, because of the public nature of the whole endeavor, everyone knew how you voted. The one guy who stood strong behind Kucinich at my polling place was heavily ridiculed at the bar we all went to afterwards. It was mostly good-natured, but the fact remains that peer pressure played a way bigger role in the caucus than it's ever likely to in a private voting booth.

It takes forever.

TPM points out that "normally, polling places close at the same time, and then take different amounts of time to conduct their counts." But in Iowa, "caucus meetings all start at the same time, but take different lengths of time to conduct their business." Those "different lengths of time" are basically varying degrees of forever. Sure, ordinary voting can take a while if lines are long. But at least all you really have to do is get your name checked off on the voter rolls and then cast your vote. At the Iowa caucus, first you have to listen to all the speeches. Then you vote. Tonight, Republicans will get to leave after they vote, and vote counts will come in over about two hours.

But for Democrats, the process takes way longer. First there's the count of initial groups, which, if your polling place has a high turnout (as those near the University of Iowa did in '08), can take a long time. At my polling place, several methods of counting were tried and then abandoned as inaccurate. When the caucus volunteers are finally satisfied that they have an accurate count, members of non-viable groups (those with less than 15% of the vote) are able to switch, and then everyone has to be counted again. At my polling place, this took easily two hours all by itself.

In both Republican and Democratic caucuses, the work isn't actually done when the votes are in. That's because the caucus isn't actually an official vote — that happens at county conventions in March. So each polling place has to elect delegates to its county conventions — and, confusingly, those delegates don't actually have to vote for the candidate who won the vote at their polling place. It doesn't really matter what they do, though — what really matters in Iowa is the result of the caucus itself. So in practice, a lot of people leave before the election of delegates. The Iowa GOP rep confirmed for me that delegates are usually chosen by a very small percentage of voters. In my precinct in '08, that small percentage was composed almost entirely of graduate students, since we were politically active and didn't have to get up early the next morning. If memory serves, nearly all delegates we elected that night were themselves grad students. The whole process took over three hours — but tonight, most voters should be able to get out significantly sooner.

Not that many people do it.

Primary turnout is generally lower than turnout for general elections, but in Iowa, it can be really low. Because it takes a long time, takes place at night during Iowa's frigid winter, and is somewhat complicated, the Iowa caucus tends to scare off all but the most committed voters. I remember feeling lucky that as a graduate student, I had the free time to participate, and realizing that it would have been hard to do so if I had, say, kids to take care of in the evening. In 2008, the overall Iowa caucus turnout was 16.1% — not the lowest primary turnout nationwide, but in the bottom 10. On the Republican side, that worked out to about 119,000 voters. As Gail Collins pointed out, even if Republicans get a whopping 150,000 voters out tonight, that'll be about the population of the small California city of Pomona. Which, she explains, is a pretty good reason why the nation should be paying a little less attention.

Republicans and Democrats alike put a lot of weight on a primary that at best is very small and at worst is pretty unfair — should an influential political contest really hinge on whose supporters make the best brownies? And as Collins and HuffPo's Soraya Chemaly both point out, Iowa has never elected a woman to the Senate, House, or governor's seat, making it a pretty crappy bellwether state from a women's rights perspective. Given how unusual the caucus is, there's every reason we shouldn't give it the extraordinary weight we currently do in determining presidential candidates. Instead, maybe we should see it for what it is — a reminder of the messiness and weirdness of democracy. With its speechifying, counting mistakes, and plentiful yelling, the Iowa caucus is a must-see for anyone who wants to witness a truly warts-and-all voting process. But it shouldn't decide the course of our nation.

Caucus Time: How The Voting In Iowa Goes Down [TPM]
Republican Party Of Iowa [Official Site]
How The Iowa Republican Caucuses Work [Des Moines Register, via USA Today]
Feel Free To Ignore Iowa [NYT]
Iowa Caucus: What's In It For Women? [Huffington Post]