New Iowa law adds two tweaks to presidential caucus process

The Des Moines Register covers a new law signed by Governor Kim Reynolds, HF 716, that tweaks a few aspects of elections in Iowa. The bill was revised substantially from the time it was first introduced and solved major associational problems. Of note are two changes to the caucus process. Some media coverage about them is overblown (Josh Putnam at FHQ has very good details), but I’ll highlight those two changes.

The caucuses are a private party-run process, but state law still has some provisions about them. For instance, “Delegates to county conventions of political parties and party committee members shall be elected at precinct caucuses held not later than the fourth Monday in February of each even-numbered year. The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus, or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory, or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.” There are statutory guarantees that Iowa goes first.

Last December, I highlighted the messiness of the DNC changing its calendar so it is no longer in sync with the RNC calendar. The DNC gave the first five spots to states that were not Iowa. It gave the first spot to South Carolina. (These rules can still change in the months ahead.)

New Hampshire law requires a primary before everyone else. Democrats in New Hampshire plan on abiding by their law and ignoring the DNC rules. That means its primary will be held in late January, before everyone else. The primary is for both Democrats and Republicans. So that puts Republicans in Iowa in a place where they have to move even earlier. Meanwhile, Iowa Democrats proposed a system that would include mail-in balloting. That system, however, would likely make New Hampshire move its primary even earlier–depending on when Iowa Democrats decided to run that process, and when the DNC told them they could.

The first change. Iowa law is amended to add, “If the state central committee of a political party chooses to select its delegates as a part of the presidential nominating process at political party precinct caucuses on the date provided in subsection 1, the precinct caucuses shall take place in person among the participants physically present at the location of each precinct caucus.”

The in-person requirement is to ensure that New Hampshire does not jump Iowa. It also applies only to the selection of delegates. It does not apply to the allocation of delegates, e.g., whether delegates are allocated to particular candidates.

So Iowa Republicans can continue an in-person caucus before everyone else, which includes an allocation process; Iowa Democrats can select delegates that night as a part of their process, but allocate later on a mail-in system; and New Hampshire can breathe easy that the caucuses will not look like a primary.

There’s still much to happen both on the DNC calendar front and the Iowa Democratic Party’s choice of process, but the change is designed to help ease everyone. We’ll see if that holds.

The second change. Iowa has same-day voter registration, and consistent with that, caucuses permitted same-day registrants to participate in the caucuses. The rules now add, “the state central committee of each political party may set rules for participate in or voting at a precinct caucus, including but not limited to voter registration requirements.”

Earlier drafts of this text had a 110-day window or a 70-day window. This instead gives the parties the flexibility to define the contours of participants. The objective is twofold. First, if the DNC and RNC allocation processes take place on different days, pre-registration requirements can diminish the risk of double-voting. Second, if there is a concern of “party raiding,” the party can institute rules to prevent that. In an election where there is no serious Democratic contest but a serious Republican contest, for instance, one can imagine Republicans wanting to require some earlier registration requirement. (More cynically, some have pointed out that a more limited caucus may help some candidates over others, a matter to be fought out inside the party, I’m sure.)

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