The Iowa Caucus Voting Process and Reforming Presidential Elections

An interesting article An Inside Look at How the Iowa Democratic Caucuses Work by Jerald Thomas Hawhee, describes the process. Like many I'm sure, I had dismissed the whole process as some kind of strange, arcane nonsense. Well not for the first time, I think I was wrong! As explained by Hawhee it is really an example of grass roots participatory democracy (remember that word?) in action. It raises some interesting questions for me on the whole of the election process.

As I understand it--but do read the article--each candidate gets a fixed number of delegates which is pre-arranged and presumably has to do with the number of registered voters. To be a viable candidate the individual must receive at least 15% of the vote of those in attendance. Hawhee comes from a small rural area which has only two delegates. Soooo, there some people will end up voting their second or third choice.

This is a form of indirect democracy in that the issue is not going to be decided necessarily on the candidate with the largest popular vote state-wide.

Originally this kind of indirect democracy (though not the same template) governed how senators were elected, since they were chosen by the State Legislature. If you are a Lincoln buff you will remember that he lost out to Douglas for Senator on the basis of a hard fought Illinois state election. A majority of his delegates for the legislature did not win, so Douglas was chosen to be the Senator from Illinois. And this is how the electoral college is intended to operate with a backup if there is a tie, throwing the election to the House of Representatives.

Now Hawhee, sees a problem in the Iowa system which he thinks can and will be fixed, in an under representation of minority voters because of undo weighting to more conservative rural districts such as his, but he would not like to see the system as a whole scrapped.

There is much talk today about just going to a popular vote for the Presidential election. While on the face of this that sounds like a more democratic stituation, but the large states determine the whole ball game. I wonder if the European system in which there are run-offs if the first round of the vote does not give one candidate a decisive majority, might have serious merit. For one thing it makes independant third party campaigns more interesting. For example some people truly believe that Nader should have a voice in the elections (or did in the past) but with elections so close these days (even discounting vote fraud) a candidate like Nader can in fact throw the election to the conservative candidate by splitting out a significant section of the liberal vote.

Food for thought I think.

Lately the party conventions have seemed more like cheer leading events that ratify a candidate already chosen during the primary process but this too was not always the case. Party bosses and party political machines would support "native son" candidates for the first rounds of the elections at the convention, only gradually swinging their vote behind one or another candidate, until finally a consensus was reached. In the process a lot of deals were struck about cabinet positions, who would be vice president, etc. Messier, no doubt dirtier, but it did get us FDR who was not anyone's first choice in 1932.

In any even I think we can all agree on the need for election reform.

No votes yet


CNN refers to this as an "arcane process":

"What you'll do is get up out of your seat and you'll go walk to the corner or space by the wall designated for the candidate of your choice," Chelsea Waliser, an organizer for Sen. Barack Obama, told potential caucus go-ers during a recent Obama rehearsal caucus.

After this first step, party officials will determine if a candidate meets the 15 percent "threshold" requirement.

Supporters of candidates making up less than 15 percent of the vote in a particular precinct will have the option of making their vote count by voting in the second tally for a "viable" candidate -- one that got at least 15 percent of the vote on the first tally.

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If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little. ~ George Carlin

.. for appointments in industry, I have come to the firm conclusion that the psychologists are right and that the correlation in obtaining someone who will actually be successful in the job is little better than 0.5%. In other words, you might as well take a pin and select one from a list of names.

I favour, therefore, a true democratic process whereby all the names of all registered voters are placed in a giant lottery machine and the presidential candidate from each party and a third candidate from a group representing non-affiliated voters is elected by this means.

Cheaper, no purchasing of favours by lobbyists and no damn nine months of electioneering. And our blogs will remain sane.

Of course, the logic of this then suggests you go one step further and select the president from the three candidates by the same method. Arguably, this then gives us a system which is the purest form of democracy that we will ever have had.

(Actually, as no computer random number is ever truly random, I think it only fair that I get to programme the lottery machine as I invented the system.)

can be found here

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If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little. ~ George Carlin

I thought Edwards gave a truly great speech, but I am truly glad that as Carl Bernstein said, the vote against THE Clintons was 70%. Not bad that young independants were drawn into the caucuses to vote. In fact a really good sign for the countries.


As Kos pointed out, Bernstein is a bit of an idiot.

The vote against each of the other two was ALSO virtually 70%.

The race is still wide open, but now more interesting.

Yes in a more=or=less even aproximately 30%-30%30 split more than 60% voted against any one of the candidates. However if you remember Hillary Clinton assumed the mantle of President elect to begin with, and 70% of the caucus voters didn't buy it.

I have been thinking about the primary and the disaffection of many Democrats for the failure of the Democrats in Congress to effectively oppose Bush on the major issues. I think that Hillary Clinton is very vulnerable on this count because she is perceived as the "establishment" candidate.


Clinton has selected her ground that enables voters to conflate her experience claims with "more of the same and we don't want it". Although she has tried to modify it, her message is in opposition to both Obama and Edwards as the "change" candidates and it certainly has not played well in Iowa.

It all depends how this is seen further down the line. "Change" candidates can frighten off voters as they come under an increasing spotlight but Obama seems to have the resilience to withstand such attacks.