DES MOINES, Iowa — Reyma McCoy McDeid designed an Iowa caucus precinct that was tailored to voters with disabilities. But it almost got derailed.
While normal Democratic caucuses are standing affairs, every caucusgoer at the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living in Des Moines had a chair in their candidate’s section. When it was time for supporters to give speeches for their candidate, they had a microphone wheeled to them. In an adjacent room, around 20 people with hearing impairment participated in the state’s only all-sign-language caucus.
But a half-hour after residents were supposed to begin caucusing here, long lines and confusion with the Iowa Democratic Party about whether participants had to pre-register left McCoy McDeid, the center’s executive director, visibly shaken.
“I’m really irritated,” she said, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. “The messaging around accessibility has been great, but the reality has not been great. It’s enraging to me. It’s absurd.
“I call it ‘Iowa-nice’ voter suppression.”
Some who waited to get in, like Jamie Cotten, who is hampered by an injured ankle and using a knee scooter, didn’t know whether they would have to find another location to caucus.
This was not what the Iowa Democratic Party had in mind when it attempted to open up caucuses to more participants this year by shortening the candidate selection process and establishing satellite locations that could run hours before the normal 7 p.m. start of other caucuses throughout the state.
The state party did not respond to repeated requests from Stateline for comment. The Democratic National Committee emailed a statement from former U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho of California, the party’s disability council chairman, who said he was “proud of the historic steps” to increase participation.
It wasn’t just uncertainty and the delays in reporting the results of the caucuses that tarnished the process. While caucusgoers throughout the state enjoyed the greater access on Monday, confusion about the system kept some Iowans from being counted and left advocates for the disability community frustrated with remaining barriers.
These setbacks could even threaten the future of caucuses as a voting method and Iowa’s place as the first presidential contest every four years, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Des Moines-based Drake University.
Caucuses are not like other contests in the presidential primary season. Instead of showing up anytime on Election Day to cast a ballot, Democrats in Iowa gather at local precincts to hear campaign pitches and haggle with neighbors before dividing the room by preferred candidate. If a candidate doesn’t reach a certain threshold in the room, supporters join another campaign.
This complex process can last hours, but it’s a point of pride for many Iowans who are reluctant to give up the process for a more traditional primary. But voter access is an issue, especially for people with disabilities, night-shift workers, students, single parents or anybody else who can’t participate in an hourslong, mobility-intensive democratic exercise.
Caufield said potential fixes such as allowing absentee participation and shortening the process are challenging to execute.
“Caucuses are particularly difficult to adopt some of the standard fixes that you would apply in a primary state,” she said. “The caucus is such a unique civic culture and practice that involves movement around a space.”
The Iowa Democratic Party, however, had a plan to increase access this year.
In addition to normal caucus locations, the party approved 60 in-state, 24 out-of-state and three international satellite locations to allow Iowa Democrats to participate at different times in the day or with special accommodations, including disability and foreign language services. Alternative locations included mosques, community centers and colleges around the state.
This allowed Mebrhtom Geberetatios and Fiseha Tesfamariam to caucus at the UFCW Local 230 union hall in Ottumwa, Iowa — an industrial community of 25,000 along the Des Moines River, an hour and a half southeast of the state capital.
The two men, both wearing black leather jackets and white “Bernie for Iowa” T-shirts, could not caucus later in the evening — the 7 p.m. start time was right in the middle of their shift at the local JBS meatpacking plant. But they were among the 15 second-shift workers who showed up at the union hall, where caucusing began at noon.
But the Ottumwa caucus wasn’t without its hitches. Michelle Grear, who wouldn’t get off work at Tenco Industries until after that evening’s regular caucuses began, attempted to join the satellite caucus but was turned away.
She had failed to pre-register by Jan. 17 — a requirement for satellite caucus participation that she hadn’t heard about. Party leaders, fearing people might caucus multiple times, this year added the pre-registration requirement for satellite locations.
“It’s really disappointing,” she said outside the union hall on an unusually mild winter morning. “I wanted to come and participate and get my vote in. I understand there are snafus here or there, but it’s still frustrating.”
Zach Simonson, the Wapello County Democratic chairman, understood her frustration. The party should have gotten the word out sooner, he said.
“This event was organized on a tight schedule,” he said. “I wish we had more time.”
This confusion also was apparent in Des Moines, where Drake University students and professors and people living near the school gathered at 4 p.m. inside the campus’s field house. Candidate names were taped to track hurdles spread across the turf field.
Sophomore Adam Koch thought he was being extra prepared, by printing out what he thought was a confirmation email for the satellite caucus. But when he tried to check in, he was turned away, having mistakenly registered for a caucus running later that evening.
“In an effort to make caucusing more convenient, it actually became more confusing and difficult,” Koch said, rubbing his forehead in bewilderment. “It’s frustrating that after two years of meeting candidates, this happens.”
Still, the satellite caucus did allow some students, such as sophomore Gabrielle Melms and senior Aili Huss, to participate without missing their evening classes.
Every four years, the chorus of caucus cynics belt out the same tune on the campaign trail, cable television and online: Ditch the Iowa caucuses — not only because of the state’s predominantly white demographics, but also because the challenging process keeps voter turnout around 16%.
In response to this criticism, the Democratic National Committee passed new rules to increase voter access, especially in caucus states, by pushing states to implement measures that allow absentee voting options and greater assistance for voters with disabilities.
In the year leading up to the caucuses, party leaders in Iowa and Nevada, which will hold the third nominating contest on Feb. 22, thought they had found a way to make their caucuses more accessible: a virtual caucus.
The plan would allow voters to participate by phone in the six days leading up to the caucuses, allowing participation by people with disabilities, residents living in other states or folks who couldn’t spend several hours in a room.
The Democratic National Committee, however, had security concerns and recommended in August the system not be used.
So Democrats in Iowa and Nevada pursued other strategies. The Nevada Democratic Party will expand its early voting efforts by opening early voting sites throughout the state for four days in mid-February, including seven locations along the Las Vegas Strip.
At those locations — one of which, at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, will be open 24 hours a day for graveyard-shift workers — voters will be able to fill out a ballot with at least three and as many as five of their top preferences ranked. If voters live in the county, they can vote early in any location within that county during the early voting period.
“We in Las Vegas are a 24/7 economy,” said Molly Forgey, the communications director for the state party. “We know that people who work here are not on a traditional 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday schedule. This gives them an option to participate.”
In Iowa, the DNC’s decision not to endorse a virtual caucus forced party leaders to shift their focus to satellite caucuses.
The party solicited requests for special accommodations that were due a week before the caucuses, handled by a newly created accessibility team. But over the past two weeks, there has been a lack of communication between the party and voters with disabilities and disability advocates, said Anne Matte, a voting outreach coordinator for Disability Rights Iowa.
By the end of caucus day in Iowa, Matte was exhausted, having spent much of Monday arranging last-minute transportation for elderly and disabled voters, which she said should have been done by the Iowa Democratic Party. Several voters she spoke to couldn’t caucus because of disability barriers.
“The party has promised us that this year would be better, that it would be the first accessible caucus,” Matte said. “The promises were not met. That is not OK. … That is not how a well-run caucus should happen.”