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Iowa Democrats Work To Lower Barriers To Caucus Participation


For all the attention the Iowa caucuses get, even in a high turnout year, less than 20% of eligible voters will come out to caucus. People have to miss work or take a time out of their evening in order to participate. And on top of that, language barriers stop some from caucusing in a state that's often criticized for being less diverse than many others. Kate Payne of Iowa Public Radio and Jimmy Jenkins of KJZZ bring this report on how Iowa Democrats are trying to respond to those concerns.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: This year, Iowa Democrats are allowing what they're calling satellite caucuses. They're places for people to go to participate that aren't their regular neighborhood precincts. Some are at hospitals to catch people on the night shift, others at college campuses. And there'll be a site here at Hoover Elementary School in suburban Cedar Rapids. It's geared towards people whose native language isn't English.

Caucus organizer and school employee Lemi Tilahun says Hoover students and their families speak more than 20 languages.

LEMI TILAHUN: French Creole, Swahili, Spanish, Kirundi, French.

PAYNE: Tilahun's team hopes a hundred people will caucus here. Many of them will probably be parents of students and first-time caucusgoers, and they'll be able to participate in their own languages with help from interpreters, which he says will make a huge difference.

TILAHUN: The families and neighbors around this area are not as engaged, so it's an opportunity for building a new voter base.

PAYNE: We step into a fourth-grade classroom. Tilahun tells the kids to talk with their parents about caucusing.

TILAHUN: So how many of you have gone to a caucus before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: What's a caucus?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: What's a caucus?


TILAHUN: That's a good question.

PAYNE: This year, there will be 97 of these sites. They'll be scattered across Iowa and the country, and three will even be overseas. This is the first cycle Iowans outside of the state will be able to caucus at this scale. My colleague Jimmy Jenkins got to go see a site in Arizona.



JOAN KOENIGS: Oh, nice to meet you. I'm Joan.

JENKINS: Nice to meet you.

J KOENIGS: Come on in.

JENKINS: Thanks. Thanks for having me in.

I'm at the home of Joan and Deo Koenigs, an hour east of Phoenix. Longtime Iowa farmers, the Koenigs were heavily involved in state politics. But since their retirement, they've been spending the winters here.

DEO KOENIGS: Snowbirds.

J KOENIGS: We came out as a grand adventure. We didn't even know where we were going. We didn't plan on staying every year.

JENKINS: But she says they fell in love with Arizona. And the Koenigs aren't the only Iowans on the block. Pat Kramer just bought a home down the street a year ago.

PAT KRAMER: I love the area. You can't beat the sunshine or the weather in the winter.

JENKINS: While they don't miss shoveling snow, Joan says caucusing is still a part of their identity.

J KOENIGS: I always felt bad when we missed caucus because we have been political all our lives.

JENKINS: And she says this year feels especially important. So Joan applied to the Iowa Democratic Party and was approved to host a caucus at her house. She was going to have people gather in the bedrooms and the kitchen and allow for overflow out onto the patio.

J KOENIGS: And so I said, sure, that's what we'll do. Little did I know.

JENKINS: The response has been so big Joan had to move the caucus to a nearby movie theater. She expects over a hundred people to show up on February 3. But back in Iowa, my colleague Kate Payne says there's lots of questions about the future of the caucus.

PAYNE: The satellite sites could attract hundreds, maybe even a few thousand more people. The chairman of the Iowa Democrats, Troy Price, says the caucuses are getting modernized.

TONY PRICE: The changes we're making this year are some of the biggest ones that we've made since the caucuses were created.

PAYNE: But critics say these satellite sites are not enough to fix what they see as fundamental problems. The process isn't set up for people who work at night, have little kids or don't have a car.

JON GREEN: They're undemocratic. They're not inclusive. It's time-consuming.

PAYNE: Jon Green is with the Johnson County Democrats, and he'll be running a caucus site in the city of Lone Tree. Green is one of an increasingly vocal number of Iowa Democrats who want the party to scrap the caucuses.

GREEN: And that doesn't mean that I'm not willing to do the best I can with what we've got. But by God, we'd better have something better four years from now.

PAYNE: Some Iowa Democrats say adding satellite caucuses will make the process more inclusive, but Green sees it as a marginal change. Whether they're in Arizona or Iowa, he says most voters don't want to spend several hours at a caucus. They just want to vote and go home.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa.

JENKINS: And I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jimmy Jenkins
Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.
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