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Thoughts on the Iowa Caucus

| Wednesday, February 12, 2020

You know what really irks me? When people call the United States a democracy.

Sure, our nation may have some democratic elements, but our government is not a democracy. Our government is not a majority-wins-all system where the minority is ignored. In fact, the Founders actually feared this democratic form of government. James Madison laments that allowing the majority to rule every decision in a country would severely undermine the rights of the minority. It would be two wolves and a sheep deciding what to eat for dinner.

Rather, the United States is a democratic republic based on a constitution. We elect representatives, proportional to our state’s or locality’s population, that then vote on legislation. Rather than citizens have a direct say in policies, elected officials deliberate them with input from the public. The inaccuracy of individuals describing America as a democracy may seem unimportant or without harm, but it can spell disaster when discussing the values of our nation. Calls that “Democracy is failing!” or “Abolish the electoral college!” display an ignorance of the intention for our nation’s founding. But that is a topic for another time. 

My thoughts on the American government’s classification arose upon watching the backlash for the Democratic Party’s Iowa Caucus. People discussed the harrowing failure of our “democratic” system all over the news, social media and personal conversations. Which, yes, we can all agree that the caucus was an utter disaster. Apps not working, miscalculations in voting and having to wait days after the initial caucus all points towards a complete failure. The Iowa Democratic Party really dropped the ball on this one. 

Due to the mess of last week’s caucus, the American public has seen an uptick in calls to remove the caucus system outright. The technical issues and concerns over Iowa’s 90% white population does raise concerns about a caucus’s ability to accurately reflect the opinion of the American public.

A major criticism of the caucus system is simply the time commitment it requires. Instead of voting at a poll and then leaving, those participating in the caucus must arrive at a designated location and stay for a few hours while votes are tallied. This brings several issues regarding accessibility. The Iowa Caucus’s time in the middle of the week makes it difficult for working voters to attend, as everyone knows it is difficult to get off work. On top of that, the hours of standing in an auditorium is a huge commitment for families and those in special circumstances. Moreover, this makes it especially difficult for individuals without transportation to participate in the nomination process. 

Regardless, despite these concerns, the caucus system is not the cause of the problems. We would see these problems with any electoral system. The most popular alternative to a caucus format is a typical primary election where voters simply cast a vote and leave. However, a primary system would be subject to the same criticisms as those laid against a caucus. With most primaries occurring during the week, it still requires individuals to take time off work that may not be possible. Although, I will concede that the time commitment is significantly less. Nevertheless, there is still the issue of transportation present in both processes. Whether a state decides to use a primary or caucus does not solve these problems. Rather than the caucus itself being a problem, its execution is the issue.

The problems mentioned above can be solved through a variety of options. Hosting the election on a weekend or multiple days would enable more people to participate, as it is likelier people could attend. For transportation issues, some localities have already proposed a solution. For the 2018 midterms, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority provided free bus rides for voters in Tampa Bay, Florida. A similar model could be adopted nationwide, or greater emphasis can be placed on ballots sent through the mail. These solutions apply to problems within the primary and caucus election formats, not simply caucuses. The issues regarding the Iowa Caucus was not because the caucus system was flawed; rather, it was due to poor execution from the Iowa Democratic Party. Caucusing still stands as a viable primary election format. 

The unique difference between a caucus and primary is privacy. In a primary, one’s ballot is secretive, where your neighbors and friends do not know who you cast your vote for. However, in a caucus, your support is broadcast to the entire region. Americans do value privacy, and it is justified. We all have a right to protect our personal lives. However, this changes once you enter the public arena to cast your ballot.

Voting is not the same as one’s religious beliefs. Religious beliefs will not have a significant impact on the broader American public. But one’s vote is an act of assisting in determining the direction of the nation. This is why individuals’ voting history is available in some areas across the country. It is certainly a public action. Thus, the way our nation conducts elections should reflect that public nature, rather than hide behind a veil of supposed secrecy.

A caucus system upholds everything a nation could hope for in a thriving, engaged citizenry. Those participating can participate in dialogue with peers as the votes are going on, attempting to persuade individuals to join their side. This act of debate and deliberation is very important to our nation, as discussed in my last column. These discussions force individuals to advocate for their candidate with sound, reasoned arguments. Otherwise, their candidate will lose.

A caucus allows citizens to engage in dialogue, searching for the most viable candidate. Ultimately, if we adopt the correct method of political dialogue, this produces a stronger citizenry and more competent elected officials.

The choice between utilizing a caucus or primary system for nomination processes is still up for debate. However, it is important to recognize that although the Iowa Caucus was disastrous, its problems are not an indictment of the caucus system. Rather, it is indicative of the issues we face in any election format. What does matter is if the American public values its privacy or the opportunity to directly engage in political discourse. 

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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