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Iowa bill would prevent absentee participation in caucuses

The Iowa Democratic caucus in the city of Earlham, Madison County, Iowa.
Danielle Kurztleben
NPR file
The Iowa Democratic caucus in the city of Earlham in Madison County

Republicans on a House panel advanced a bill Wednesday that would require Iowans to caucus in-person and register as a Republican or Democrat at least 70 days before the presidential caucuses.

Iowa Democrats criticized the bill because it would make their proposal for absentee caucus participation illegal.

Bill sponsor Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the bill is needed to help Iowa stay first in the nation’s presidential nominating process.

“If we do mail-in ballot voting as a caucus in Iowa, New Hampshire views that as a primary,” Kaufmann said. “And they will jump us, which will jeopardize our first in-the-nation status.”

The Iowa Democratic Party proposed using mail-in preference cards for the Democratic caucuses as part of its bid to stay first in the nation.

National Democrats still voted to remove Iowa from the early nominating window. But national Republicans kept Iowa first in the nation, and Republican presidential hopefuls have already been visiting the state.

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart said the bill was a “surprise move.”

“It’s disappointing that Republicans proposed this bill with no input from Democrats, and it is potentially damaging to the history of how Iowa’s parties have always worked together regarding the Iowa Caucuses,” she said in a statement. “Iowa Democrats will do what’s best for Iowa and that means moving forward with an inclusive caucus process.”

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who is also the father of the bill’s sponsor, said Iowa could lose its first-in-the-nation status “without commonsense intervention from the legislature.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said in a statement Wednesday she will do everything she can to protect Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. She said the privilege of having the first-in-the-nation primary election belongs to New Hampshire.

“Iowa’s role in the presidential primary process is to be a caucus—a gathering of neighbors, in-person to debate and conduct party business,” Reynolds said. “The Iowa Democrat Party is unwilling to accept that their changes, an all-mail-in system of ballots, are by definition a primary and not a caucus. Because of this, our coveted status as first in the nation is in jeopardy.”

The mail-in option was a response to the Democratic National Committee’s call to make the process more accessible. Iowa Democrats said mail-in preference cards would make the caucuses more inclusive of voters who may not be able to make it to their precinct on caucus night, because they were working, lacked child care, or faced other obstacles.

At a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, lobbyist Carlyn Crowe said the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council is opposed to the bill.

“We just feel like this is creating more barriers to being able to vote and being civically engaged for those Iowans,” Crowe said. “And everybody deserves the right to be civically engaged.”

Rep. Austin Harris, R-Moulton, said most of the caucus locations are in buildings that are required to be accessible for people with disabilities.

“This is about preserving, to me, the integrity of the caucuses,” he said. “I’m all for having a caucus that is inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible. But if you don’t even have to show up to a caucus business meeting, you can just send in a piece of paper with a name on it and call it good, then it’s no longer a caucus.”

Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, said the legislature should stay out of political party business.

“The parties have the right to decide who gets to show up,” she said. “I think we also have the right to decide how we run them. So I don’t think that allowing some remote access to our caucuses is creating a primary. What it’s doing is opening up access.”

Harris said the part of the bill that would require people to register with the party they want to caucus with 70 days in advance would help the parties with the check-in process. He also said it would help prevent any potential problems with one party trying to meddle in the other’s presidential nominating process.

Nielsen said she’s not aware of any problems caused by voters being able to register to vote on caucus day. She said if the law is changed, people might show up expecting to be able to participate and then be denied a chance to caucus.

The Republican and Democratic caucuses are typically held on the same day, which would make it nearly impossible for one person to attend caucuses for both parties in the same year. That is also illegal.

But with the shake-up in the Democratic nominating calendar, it is possible the Republican and Democratic caucuses could be on different days in 2024.

Kaufmann, who is also a senior advisor to former president Donald Trump’s 2024 Iowa campaign, said he expects to move the bill through the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.

The bill’s path in the Senate is not clear. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said in a statement Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses have brought great benefits to the state.

“For years, both parties have worked hard to protect that status and the Senate is hopeful that tradition will continue,” Whitver said. “The Senate is aware of this legislation. At this time no determination has been made regarding its future.”

This post was updated Wednesday, April 12, at 5:10 p.m. It was originally published Tuesday, April 11.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter