Iowa Democrats get green light for ‘satellite caucuses’ plan

The Iowa Democratic Party’s new plan for the 2020 presidential caucuses was conditionally approved Friday by the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee, just two weeks after their “virtual caucusing” proposal was rejected due to security concerns.

Democrats in the Hawkeye State will now be allowed to apply to form “satellite caucuses” in locations of their choosing on February 3 next year, the day of the Iowa caucuses, giving voters who cannot attend their designated precinct the ability to participate. Iowans living out of state, like members of the military, will also be able to form their own satellite caucus as well.

“Given the timeframe left, we knew we were under some constraints,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told the committee. “We are now just four and a half months away from the caucuses and any changes made would have to be implemented securely and implemented successfully in that ever-shrinking window that we have left available to us.”

The proposals comply with the DNC’s accessibility rules that were enacted last year to give voters who can’t normally attend the caucuses an opportunity to participate. The rules call for some form of early voting in caucuses, additional access for people with disabilities, and requirements on how delegates are selected from the process.

Price presented the new plan to the committee, saying additional caucus sites could benefit voters who can’t easily attend their precinct, like senior citizens, shift workers, people with disabilities and others.

The plan came out of the limited satellite sites the party allowed four years ago. At the time, members of the military could vote by phone, but that was rejected for this presidential cycle.

“While our goal is not to have it satellite sites cannibalize our precinct caucus process, these satellite sites may help, in fact, with some of the precincts where we know that overcrowding could be a challenge,” Price said. “We know that satellite caucuses expand participation because it did just that in 2016.”

Satellite caucus sites held in-state will be rolled up into an additional “virtual county” within each congressional district as determined by location, similar to the original virtual caucus plan. Out-of-state caucuses will be counted as one at-large county on the state level.

Iowans looking to hold a satellite caucus must apply by November 18 to a committee made up of Price and select state central committee members who have pledged to remain neutral in the presidential race.

Price also announced the state party will hire a caucus accessibility director, two accessibility organizers, and outreach directors to African American, Latino and labor Democrats.

Accessibility organizers will ensure satellite sites have the proper training and resources to hold the vote. They will also verify caucus locations are ADA-compliant, provide ASL card or language translation as requested, and coordinate rides for voters.

The unanimous approval of these reforms by the rules committee ends a grueling year-long process by Iowa to comply with the party’s requirements to expand access to caucus voting.

The state originally planned to hold six “virtual caucuses” by phone beginning in January next year. That plan was rejected by the committee, which must formally approve all state presidential primary plans, due to security concerns over hacking.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez, along with committee chairs Jim Roosevelt Jr. and Lorraine Miller, issued a joint statement earlier this month requesting all virtual caucus plans be rejected because the party’s security experts determined the voting by phone could not be secured from cyberattacks.

Nevada’s virtual caucus plan was also rejected, but their early in-person voting options complied with the DNC’s requirements. The removal of the vote-by-phone element did not require an alternate plan, which has also been conditionally approved.

“All of us here in Iowa were disappointed by the outcome of the rejection of the virtual caucus,” Price noted to the committee. “But Iowans also understand the concerns related to cybersecurity and the susceptibility of a telephonic-based system to cyberattacks.”

Since the formal rejection earlier this month, Price has been working with the DNC to ensure the caucuses comply with the increased accessibility rules set by the party.

One issue complicating Iowa’s change was opposition from New Hampshire, which wants to remain the first in the nation primary. Alternatives that could have been considered — like early voting on a paper ballot — would have been seen as too similar to a primary, which could have provoked the Granite State to hold its primary before Iowa.

“These caucuses are the foundation for our victories in 2020,” Price said. “And if they go well — and we have as many voices as possible participating — then we will win up and down the ticket in November of next year.”