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Seasoned Caucusgoer? First-Timer? What You Need To Know Before Caucus Night

John Pemble

On Feb. 3, Iowans will meet for the first-in-the-nation caucuses. Each party has its own rules and locations. Your caucus location is probably not the same place you go to vote, and both parties ask that you check your voter registration ahead of time. 

Even though Democrats are getting a lot of the attention right now, Republicans are caucusing too. 

How do I register to vote or update my voter registration?

If you have an Iowa driver's license, you can update your name and address from home online. Do that here. 

If you're not registered to vote, or if you aren’t sure if you’re registered to vote, you can do that online too. 


Where do I go on caucus night?

If you’re caucusing for the first time, you’ll need to find out what precinct you’re in, and from there, you can find the location of your caucus site.

Find your precinct here. 

Once you know your precinct, you can find your caucus site here if you’re a Republican and here if you're a Democrat. 

What happens at a caucus?

How do the Iowa Democratic caucuses work?

At the Iowa Decmoratic caucuses, participants divide themselves into "preference groups" according to the candidate they support, or go to a group for people who are uncommitted. Campaign representatives may be given the chance to address the whole caucus in order to win over supporters. Otherwise, it's up to individual caucusgoers to make up their own minds, or try to convince others to come over to their candidate's preference group. This process is called alignment. 

Candidates must be "viable" in order to win delegates at a caucus. Viability varies by precinct; for most precincts, candidates' preference groups will need to win 15% of the supporters at the site in order to be awarded delegates. 

If a candidate is not viable, participants in that preference group have a few options: they can leave, they can go to another viable candidate's preference group, they can try to win over caucusgoers in other nonviable groups in order to make a viable group, or they can join an uncommitted group. 

For the 2020 caucuses, there will be two alignments periods.

After the first alignment, each caucusgoer will be given a piece of paper called a presidential preference card that will act as a physical record of who each caucusgoer supported. Precinct leaders will direct caucusgoers to write down which candidate they're supporting on their preference card. Do not lose this card. You must return it to precinct officials before you leave the site. After the first alignment, members of viable groups may fill out their preference cards and return them to precinct officials and go home for the night. 

After the alignment process is complete, delegates are elected to go to the county convention and the precinct captain will open the floor for resolutions. 

How do the Iowa Republican caucuses work?

At Iowa Republican caucuses sites, Iowans who support each candidate have the chance to speak about why they support the candidate that they do. After candidate representatives have a chance to speak, caucusgoers are handed a paper form to fill out to indicate who their preferred candidate is. 

Those votes are then tallied and reported to party headquarters. Republicans don't have a percentage threshhold like Democrats do, and at Republican caucuses, there is no realigning process. 

What's new about the caucuses this year?

Most of the notable changes this year have to do with the Democratic caucuses.

There was talk about Democrats hosting virtual caucuses to allow Iowans to call-in or caucus through a video chat. That idea was scrapped because of cyber-security concerns. There are a 97 satellite locations this year that will allow Iowans to caucus if they can’t be at their regular precinct.

Most of these Democratic satellite locations will be in Iowa, but there are also going to be satellite caucus locations in a handful of states outside of Iowa including Illinois, Florida, Minnesota, Washington D.C., California and Arizona, in addition to some international satellite locations happening in Scotland, the Republic of Georgia and in Paris, France.

Iowa Democrats are also allowing early check-in, encouraging caucusgoers to register online by January 17 to keep from waiting in long lines.

In 2016, there were ties at some precincts, and the winners were decided by games of chance such as coin flips. In the wake of those ties, the DNC has pressured Iowa Democrats to have a paper record of the caucuses in the event that a recount is requested. This year's presidential preference cards will serve as that paper record. Because Iowa has caucuses and not a primary, party leaders are quick to say these cards are not ballots. Here's an explainer on why Iowa doesn't have a primary and hasn't adopted certain electoral changes.

At the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a candidate has to win enough of the supporters in the room to become viable during the caucus process. In past years, you’ve been able to leave a viable group to go to another. This year, that will not be the case. If your preference group is viable at the end of the first alignment, you will not be able to leave that group, including if you are in the uncommitted group. Only members of nonviable groups will be able to realign; therefore, viable groups can not lose supporters, they can only gain supporters. This is a big change, and if you've caucused before, you should be aware of this new rule. 

How should I prepare to go caucus?

If you are going to attend a caucus, you have to be standing in line to get inside your location by 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 3.

Learn about the candidates! If you’re not a seasoned political junkie, that’s okay. Get up to speed on why Iowa has a caucus and not a primary, why Iowa goes first in the nation, and what the candidates have had to say as they’ve been campaigning in Iowa with our podcast Caucus Land, hosted by IPR’s Clay Masters and Kate Payne.

Still have more questions? We’ve got answers! Tweet us @IowaPublicRadio.

Why is it called a caucus?

According to NPR Senior Political Correspondent Domenico Montanaro, the word caucus is thought to come from an Algonquin Indian word - cau' -cau-as'u, meaning "one who advises, urges, encourages," and "to talk to ... give counsel, advise, encourage, and to urge, promote, incite to action."

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.