Iowa caucus 2020: Why today’s news is a BIG deal

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But you’d be wrong. Let me tell you why.

What the Democratic National Committee’s decision means, in the most basic of terms, is that Iowa’s plan to hold “virtual” caucuses by phone — a move aimed at expanding the number of people who can participate — won’t work. Why? Because of concerns, particularly in the wake of the 2016 Russian hacking of the DNC’s email servers, that phoning it in, literally, could create the very real possibility of vote-tampering. (Iowa proposed the virtual caucus in order to meet the DNC’s requirement that every state that holds a a caucus to implement some sort of absentee voting process to allow people who can’t show up in person to participate.)

Take one step back. The key difference between a caucus (like Iowa) and a primary (like New Hampshire) is this: In a caucus, people are required to show up at a designated place, group themselves by which candidate they prefer and then lobby others whose candidates don’t have enough support to matter. In a primary, you go to your designated voting place, cast a ballot and leave.

The caucus is WAY more time-consuming. And that time commitment functions as a high barrier for entry for people who might not be able to get the time off from work or are not physically able to make it to a caucus.

All of this matters because, as of today, the Iowa caucuses are just 157 days away. Which isn’t very long!

Now, it is uniquely possible that Iowa Democrats figure out how to fix their caucus plan to the satisfaction of the DNC well before the big day. But to assume that will happen overlooks one very important factor: New Hampshire.

See, New Hampshire REALLY likes having the first-in-the-nation primary. The state likes it so much that it has empowered its secretary of state to move the primary date to whenever he or she sees as necessary to preserve the state’s first-in-line status. (The New Hampshire primary is currently scheduled for February 11.)

The most obvious solution to solve Iowa’s virtual caucus problem is to memorialize any votes cast over the phone on a paper ballot. Which, to New Hampshire’s view, starts to make the Iowa caucuses look a lot like a primary. Which means that the door is at least open slightly for the possibility that New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner could move the state’s primary ahead of the February 3 Iowa caucuses if he deems the eventual solution offered by the Hawkeye State as too similar to a primary.

And the order matters: If New Hampshire went first, the calculus of the race could be fundamentally changed. Candidates who have spent lots of time and energy in Iowa could see that go for naught, because what happened in New Hampshire would have a huge impact on the Iowa vote to follow.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley told CNN Friday that he and his party remain “resolute in protecting the first in the national primary” but believe that the issue will be resolved.

The DNC has set September 13 as the deadline for it to approve all plans to deal with its requirements for absentee voting in caucus states. And later Friday, DNC chair Tom Perez said in a statement that the party would consider a waiver to allow the Iowa caucus to continue without the virtual caucus. That could provide an out — although a concession by the DNC — to preserve the current state of the calendar.

But Iowa Democrats are caught between Scylla and Charybdis at the moment.

On one side, they have the DNC mandate that they must find a way to provide an option for people to vote who can’t make it to a caucus site — and the DNC’s rejection of the plan to do it over the phone with no paper trail to document the votes.

On the other, they have New Hampshire, which views any paper balloting as the stuff of primaries, and could change their own primary in response.

Can Iowa and the DNC find a way through this thicket? Sure! But there’s no quick and easy solution. And the Iowa caucuses are just five months away.

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