Caucus Postscript: The Disenfranchised

Democrats caucus Monday at the Perkins Elementary School gym precinct in Des Moines. Photo: Jon Lemons/Iowa Informer

As I drove to Donald Trump’s victory party that wasn’t to be Monday in West Des Moines, I listened to a public radio program taking calls from Iowans who were unable to attend their precincts because of work or other conflicts. They included a Hillary Clinton supporter in Minnesota for his job who couldn’t cancel out his daughter’s vote for Bernie Sanders, a college student who didn’t get out of an evening class in time to support John Kasich, a trucker on duty who’d forsaken the system anyway because the only people who have a voice in America make six figures or more, and a man who approvingly claimed he heard Ted Cruz say he would exterminate Muslims (the host couldn’t tell whether or not that was a prank call).

The subject was one I’d had in mind earlier, because a Twitter pal had pointed me to a story idea tweeted by civil liberties blogger Marcy Wheeler:

The tweets led me to another that linked to an article I mentioned the other day in an update to my last-minute caucus reader from CounterPunch decrying the caucuses as a “classist and ageist farce”:

In Iowa, as across the nation, lots of people work during the early to middle evening, after the traditional dinner hour. Tow-truck drivers. Nurses’ aides. Nurses. Resident emergency room doctors. EMTs. Hotel receptionists. Cops. Security guards. Second-shift production workers. Custodians. Retail clerks. Waitresses. Dishwashers. Butchers at the grocery store. Chicken-shacklers at poultry-processing plants. English as a Second Language night instructors. Telemarketers. Cab drivers. Bus drivers. Activity coordinators at retirement homes. Librarians. The people who rent out ice skates at the rink in the Coralville Mall. I could go on.

The author, Paul Street, did, adding, “Many of these folks would seem to be precisely the sort of working class people one might expect to gain from the enactment of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ progressive domestic social agenda, including a significant increase in the federal minimum wage and single-payer (Medicare for All) health insurance.”

ThinkProgress ran a story during the caucuses more along the lines of Wheeler’s pitch, interviewing a handful of 20-somethings in sales who said they couldn’t afford to miss work. (Last year, an AFL-CIO-supported bill that would have required employers to allow workers time off to attend the caucuses eventually stalled in the Iowa Legislature.)

Later that night, after I’d hopped from the Trump rally to Bernie Sanders’ by the Des Moines airport, I got in touch with someone who missed out on the process for another reason: Nikki Bado-Fralick, a 61-year-old associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University whose right foot was recently amputated. Unable to find adequate transportation from her home on the northern edge of Ames to her precinct site just up the road in Gilbert, the longtime “disgusted Democrat” didn’t get the chance to caucus for Sanders, a candidate she would have been able to get behind without holding her nose.

“I’ve been trying to get to it for a week on the HIRTA bus,” she told me, referring to the Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency service commonly used by the disabled and elderly. “I asked if they were having special buses to go to the caucus sites and they said no. I said, well, how late do you guys run? They said there’s only one guy who runs late and they would be able to get people to the caucus but not get them back, which really sucks if you’re handicapped.” She said the Sanders camp tried to help her with transportation but didn’t realize she “need[ed] to have the chair go into a van or bus with me on it, just like a HIRTA bus,” an option they weren’t able to provide. “I even had a volunteer say that she would push my wheelchair back to where I’m at,” she added. “I thought, that’s really sweet, but that’s like three miles. That’s a little over the top.”

I asked her if she had thoughts on how the system could be improved. “Maybe the same way that we do absentee voting, or electronically, or something like that.”

“This is something that has been talked about for years,” Richard Bender, an architect of the Democratic caucus system, told me when I spoke with him yesterday. In fact, Bender pointed out, the Democratic Party did test out two new options this year: Through November, it accepted applications to participate in satellite caucuses from people facing various hardships otherwise preventing them from attending; and for the first time, the party also held a tele-caucus for Iowans not currently in the state but either covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act or in active duty in the military.

“We did it basically as a test on how you do it, and also because the technology’s getting better to allow it,” Bender said. When the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses began in 1972, he noted, not everyone had access to a calculator and, because not all of the precinct volunteers were good at math, they used paper charts to help with delegate counts. In 2016, by contrast, Democrats tried out the remote caucus options, and a (not always flawless) app was introduced to help with the counts. “As the technology improves, it may be possible to do this more broadly and more thoroughly,” Bender said. “Why don’t you give me a call right after the 2024 caucus and let me explain how wonderful this new technology is that we’ve figured out — ‘Of course, we have the whatchamacallit that was developed and that made it easier to do.'”

Did Bado-Fralick think this year’s caucus results, given the absence of the whatchamacallit, would be an adequate representation of Iowa voters? She wasn’t sure (but hoped not, as far as support for the current crop of Republican candidates was concerned). “I know quite a few people who are not really happy with the caucus system, so they deliberately don’t go to the caucus,” she said before Clinton emerged as the winner by the thinnest of margins, “so it’s hard to tell if it really represents anything.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.