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Iowa Will Require Caucusgoers to Be Present in Person

The Iowa caucuses will be a big battleground in 2024—in more ways than one. Obviously, the battle between the many Republican candidates will be huge. For some of the minor ones, it could be do or die. An eighth place finish almost certainly spells the end of the line for anyone.

But there is another fight going on in the background about the timing and the format. A caucus is not a primary so maybe a brief description of a common format could be useful. At the start of a caucus, supporters of the various candidates go into separate rooms, discuss their candidate, and elect a chair. Then everyone comes back into a plenary meeting and the chairs get 5 minutes or so to pitch their candidates. Then there is a vote. Any candidate falling below some threshold is eliminated. Then the process is repeated until every remaining candidate has met the threshold. Then there is a vote and delegate slots to the next level up are allocated based on the vote. Finally people run for the delegate slots. After the initial precinct-level caucuses, the elected delegates go to the county-level caucuses, then the congressional-district-level caucuses, then the state caucus, where the delegates to the national convention are chosen.

The Republicans are fine with this scheme. The Democrats are not fine with it and want to allow mail-in voting so that elderly and disabled people can take part easily. However, a mail-in caucus is very much like a primary and New Hampshire law states that New Hampshire must hold the first primary. If the Democrats were to allow mail-in votes, New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan (R) could declare that Iowa was actually running a primary. not a caucus, and set New Hampshire's date before Iowa's.

There are three new developments here. First, Iowa Democrats have released a plan saying that they will hold their caucuses the same day as the Republicans, in defiance of the DNC, which has moved Iowa to the back of the line. The plan also specifies that the precinct-level caucuses will elect unbound delegates to the county-level caucuses. Since there is only one major candidate this time, that doesn't matter much, but in 2028 could matter a lot. Also, there will be a separate mail-in presidential preference vote. To our ears, that sounds very much like a primary in mail-in states like Oregon and Colorado. Separate from what New Hampshire will do, having the Iowa Democrats arguing with the DNC won't matter so much this time but would be huge in 2028.

Second, last week Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) signed a law banning mail-in votes to the caucuses. If you want to take part, you have to show up in person. Now it is not clear what that really means since caucuses are run by the parties, not by the state, and it is far from clear that the state has the authority to tell the parties how to run their caucuses. This could end up in the courts.

Third, Iowa Republicans have said that to vote in the Republican caucus, a voter must be a registered Republican. In the past, any eligible voter who walked in could take part. The goal here is to minimize ratf**king. What the Republicans are trying to avoid is having bored Democrats who are not interested in their own caucuses show up and try to get the least electable Republican to win. Of course, Democrats who are aware of this can go register as Republicans any time between now and the caucuses. After the caucuses, they can switch back, naturally. But the rule makes it harder and may cut down on the mischief. (V)

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