Today is the day of the Iowa caucuses. I am not in Iowa today, so I will not be participating, but I did four years ago. It was an event I described as the most fun I’ve ever had while voting.
Why was this so fun? Caucuses are different from primaries. I voted in the New Hampshire primary when I lived there during graduate school (I like to live in politically important states). That primary is just like voting in an election. You go to the local high school gym or legion hall or other central municipal location, go into the voting booth, make your selection, and leave. I remember the experience as being cold, dark, and anti-climactic.
For a caucus you also go to a central location in your area. In my town it is the high school gym or the bank basement. In some small towns people meet in living rooms. But for a caucus you must go at the appointed time. Four years ago I trudged through the snow on a dark and cold January night to join others at the caucus.
You meet in a large room, people talk about why you should vote for one candidate over another, sometimes there is food provided by the supporters of a particular candidate, and then you vote. Depending on whether you are in the Republican or Democratic caucus you vote differently. For the Republicans you write the candidate you support on a blank sheet of paper (although sometimes a show of hands is used).
With the Democrats you vote with your feet. Supporters of particular candidates move to an area of the room—the northwest corner, for example. Those who are undecided are courted by people from different areas. And you can be swayed from your corner to another corner by the supporters of another candidate until the final count is made. How the groups shake out is important. The number of delegates sent to the county convention is dependent on the percentage of people in each group. If there are not enough people in a group that candidate does not get a delegate.
Each party sends candidates to their county convention. Delegates are then sent on to the district and finally state convention. It is only at the state convention that the delegates for the National Convention are chosen.
This process felt more like I was doing something when I voted. I heard from friends and neighbors about their views and then made my decision in a more tangible way than touching a screen while sequestered in a small, dark booth. I felt like I actually participated in democracy.
The caucus is a contradiction. The voter is more removed from the actual decisions that are made, since the real decisions are made at the state convention, not in those living rooms, gyms, or bank basements across the state. But it feels more personal and truly is the most fun I’ve had while voting.
Confused about how this works? Here’s a good graphic explaining the process: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/interactive/article/20071219/NEWS09/71219068/INTERACTIVE-GRAPHIC-How-caucuses-work