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Why the Iowa caucuses are horribly undemocratic UPDATED

Have to work Monday night but still want to caucus? Too bad. Why Iowa's process is absurdly anti-democratic and badly out of step with modern life.


We appreciate the concern and questions raised around this erroneous story; however we’ve learned that the partner who spoke to MSNBC was never scheduled to work on Monday, the day of the Iowa Caucus. She never formally requested time off and was under the impression that the Caucus was being held on Tuesday.  For the record, it’s important to point out that Petco wholeheartedly supports and encourages civic involvement among all our partners at every level of the company. We also have a voting policy that allows partners scheduled to work on election days the ability to arrive to work late or leave early without loss of pay.


For years, critics of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status have pointed out that the state — small, rural, and 94 percent white — is an awful proxy for the nation as a whole. The effect is made worse by the fact that New Hampshire, the third whitest state in the nation, follows Iowa in the presidential nominating process. But that's just the start: The wacky way in which Iowa's Democratic caucuses award delegates — explained by MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald here — grossly violates the concept of one person, one vote. (The Republican process isn’t much fairer: It allowed Ron Paul’s supporters in 2012 to manipulate the party’s convention process and get 23 of the state’s 28 delegates, even though he only came third in the actual voting.) Then there's the fact that, for Democrats, there's no secret ballot: All voting is done in public, forcing people to expose their political views to their neighbors and co-workers whether they want to or not. And this year, there are also concerns about basic administration: Democrats are said to lack people to run the caucus in hundreds of sites, and incorrect or changing caucus locations are adding to the confusion.

But the tightly limited hours are perhaps the most glaring problem — especially at a time when Democrats are emphasizing the importance of expanding access to voting, and are responding to the needs of working people. The caucuses start at 7 p.m. sharp — no one gets in if they show up late — and last until 10. There's no absentee or early voting.

What's a caucus?

Jan. 27, 201603:41

Bowing to pressure this year, the Iowa Democratic Party is allowing people to apply to hold satellite caucuses. But participants still must be free for three hours on a specific evening, so that doesn’t help people who can’t leave work. And only four satellite caucuses will be held this year, the party said.

Not surprisingly, turnout for the caucuses is strikingly low. In 2008, the last year both parties had competitive contests, 359,000 people showed up for either the Democratic or Republican caucuses. That was just 17 percent of Iowa’s registered voters, and far fewer than the 517,623 who voted in New Hampshire's primary that year, even though Iowa's population is more than twice New Hampshire's. Broadly speaking, caucus-goers appear to be richer than those who don’t make it, at least among Democrats. In 2008, 42 percent of Democratic caucus-goers made less than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. By contrast, 47 percent of those who voted for Obama that fall made less than $50,000.

On the Democratic side, the lack of access is especially jarring at a time when both of the party's leading candidates have emphasized making voting easier as key parts of their platforms, highlighting a contrast with the GOP, which has supported restrictive voting rules.

“We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder,” Hillary Clinton wrote in an op-ed last week. Both she and Sanders have endorsed automatic voter registration of the kind enacted this year in Oregon and California — Bernie Sanders even introduced a Senate bill to take the idea national, and to make Election Day a national holiday. And consider that Clinton’s top lawyer, Marc Elias, last year filed suit against cuts to early voting in Ohio and Wisconsin, claiming that the changes unfairly burdened the right to vote — lawsuits that were applauded by Clinton's campaign. But even those states’ shortened schedules offer exponentially more access than do the caucuses.

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The restricted hours are increasingly out of step not only with the direction of the Democratic Party, but also with broader economic trends. Many of those who will be shut out are likely to be low-wage workers, who typically have little control over their schedules. Indeed, 48 percent of Iowa's jobs pay less than $15 an hour, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. Nationally, too, a growing share of jobs are in the low-wage service sector. A bill introduced in November by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which would encourage more dependable employee schedules, highlighted the problem. Both Clinton and Sanders have taken pains to reach out to the low-wage worker movement as it fights for a higher minimum wage and better working conditions. On Thursday, fast-food workers walked off the job in Des Moines to protest their low pay.

Clinton is aware of the problem. Back in 2008, she seemed to blame the caucuses’ limited hours for her defeat in Iowa to Barack Obama, whose sophisticated turnout operation — his campaign even offered baby-siting help to supporters — and appeal among plugged-in party activists gave him an advantage. “You know, there are a lot of people who couldn’t caucus tonight,” Clinton noted in a speech after the results were in. “There are a lot of people who work at night, people who are on their feet, people who are taking care of patients in a hospital, or waiting on a table in a restaurant, or maybe in a patrol car keeping our streets safe.”

But asked twice whether she’s still concerned that the caucuses won’t give those people a voice, her campaign didn’t respond. 

Sanders' campaign said the senator would like to see the party do more to improve access. "He is committed to working with the state party to expand participation through the implementation of new policies such as ensuring employers give time off to their workers so they are able to caucus," Brendan Summers, Sanders' Iowa caucus director, said in a statement.

Sam Lau, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, pointed to the satellite caucuses as evidence that the party understands the need to make the process more accessible. 

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“This year we are starting small, but we hope the satellite caucuses are able to grow in the upcoming years so as many Iowans as possible have the ability to caucus,” Lau told MSNBC. “While we firmly believe that the caucuses are a unique and important form of democracy, we are constantly looking for ways to make them better and more inclusive, and will continue to do so moving forward.” 

CORRECTION: This story originally reported on a worker at Petco who said she was unable to caucus because she had to work. In fact, she has caucus night off. See statement from Petco at top of story.