Earlier this week, the Republican Party of Iowa and Iowa Democratic Party made a joint statement establishing the date for the 2010 caucuses. The caucuses next year will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, January 23rd. While there is little that these two political parties can agree on, the Iowa caucuses are the one area where both parties put their differences aside and work together.
Some in the media have speculated that the move to hold the caucuses on a Saturday was done to pave the way for a Saturday presidential caucus. One common criticism of the Iowa Caucuses is that they are held on a weeknight during the winter. That means some people can’t attend because they have to work, or some older Iowans might not be able to attend because of inclement weather. Another criticism is that absentee votes are not allowed in the caucuses. That means people who need to travel for business, live in Arizona or Florida during the winter months, or are serving in our armed forces cannot participate.
All of those criticisms are valid, but there is no way that the political parties in Iowa can accommodate all of these concerns. Doing so would end the Iowa Caucuses and replace them with a primary. If that happens, there is nothing in either party’s rules that would protect or allow Iowa to retain its first-in-the nation status.
For Iowa to maintain its first-in-the-nation status, it must remain flexible on its date, which includes what day of the week on which the caucuses will be held. I was deeply involved in the date selection for the 2008 caucuses during my time as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa. Nobody wanted to hold the presidential caucuses on January 3rd of that year, but the 3rd was the only date on the calendar that would truly preserve Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.
In 2008, Florida and Michigan created a lot of havoc in the presidential primary calendar when both states opted to hold their primaries in January. With Michigan setting their primary on January 15th, that meant that both Iowa and New Hampshire would have to hold their first-in-the-nations contests in early January or even in December. New Hampshire state law requires it to hold its presidential primary seven days before any similar primary contest. When Michigan set its primary for January 15th, the latest New Hampshire could then hold its caucuses was January 8th.
A normal person would think that everything would fall into place rather easily, but that wasn’t the case since the word ‘normal’ isn’t typically used in politics. New Hampshire’s Secretary of State William Gardner wasn’t ready to schedule the date for the New Hampshire primary on January 8th. Instead, he indicated that New Hampshire might hold its primary in December. The problem that both political parties in Iowa faced was that caucuses take a lot more time to organize than state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded primaries.
Knowing that the January 8th date would comply with New Hampshire state laws, officials with the Iowa Republican Party were ready to set the date for the caucuses on January 3rd. Officials with RPI were in constant communication with their counterparts at the Iowa Democratic Party, but the IDP wasn’t ready to announce the date with the unpredictable New Hampshire Secretary of State still out there talking about a December primary. As you all know, Iowa Republicans went ahead with the January 3rd date, and the Iowa Democrats joined them shortly after. Despite the early January 3rd date, the 2008 Iowa Caucuses were a huge success.
I applaud both the Republican Party of Iowa and the Iowa Democratic Party for wanting to make the caucuses more assessable for Iowans to attend. However, to retain Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, both parties will have to remain flexible on the date that the contest will be held. Holding the 2010 caucuses on a Saturday is a great idea, but it has no bearing or significance in regard to the 2012 caucus date.
In addition to making the caucuses more assessable, Iowa’s political parties should use off-year caucuses to find new ways for precincts to report the results. That might require caucus locations to have an internet connection. Organizing the presidential caucuses is a huge undertaking for both political parties, but it is a price worth bearing. Just as our political candidates embrace new technology in their campaigns, our political parties also need to use new technology to cut costs, speed up results, and provide more credibility to the process.
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