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“It is a total mess.”
“This was a failure.”
“The Iowa caucuses just died forever.”
On February 3, I witnessed a magnificent confluence of camaraderie and civic duty when I flew back to my hometown of Fairfield, Iowa to participate in the Iowa caucuses. I was thrilled by my precinct’s turnout and took part in conversations with former high school teachers, neighbors, and other community members. I left Fairfield feeling confident in the Democratic Party and eager to watch the rest of the nomination process unfold.
But my return to Columbia’s campus the next day did not prompt the same level of optimism and fervor. Instead, my peers were disillusioned and concerned. Some of them asked me how I felt about abolishing the Iowa caucus system. To some, the caucuses are a ludicrous system that diverges from democratic ideals and veers toward anarchy. The system is a hollow presidential nomination process hanging by a thread.
There's little doubt that the Iowa caucuses are teetering on the brink of extinction. National media outlets, political pundits, and elected officials have demanded that the system undergo substantial reform after Iowa Democratic caucus results were severely delayed because of a faulty smartphone app.
While a series of technological glitches drew much attention to the Iowa caucuses this year, the system has been under fire since 1972 when the state was first designated to kick off the Democratic presidential nominating process. The caucuses take place on a Monday evening and can take anywhere from one to two hours. This makes the process inaccessible to thousands of Iowans, as many work night shifts or cannot afford childcare services. The process can be physically demanding as well, as it requires long periods of sitting on floors or standing.
At the same time, assuming that the deficiencies of the Iowa caucus process should define the system entirely overlooks the many ways it upholds and continues to champion a more democratic state. The Iowa caucuses can teach Columbia students and the rest of the nation a great deal. They show that when communities unite, people jump off of their couches and head to the polls. They show that even in what can be suppressive and trying conditions, a sliver of democracy can prevail.
Thousands of volunteers, many of whom work day jobs far from the realm of Midwestern politics, carry the Iowa caucuses on their backs. In the many meetings that they attended leading up to the caucuses, volunteer leaders addressed the problem of accessibility, which is a major criticism of the caucus system. The Iowa Democratic Party assisted volunteers in their efforts, and equipped all 1,678 precincts with an accessibility handbook that detailed translation procedures and disability accommodations.
In fact, Iowa held its first caucus communicated entirely in American Sign Language in 2020. At the Bosnian Islamic Center mosque in Des Moines, Bosnian, Bhutanese, and Nepalese citizens stepped in to translate for their neighbors. And in my own precinct, a 62-year-old woman handed out sunflower seed crackers to weary caucus-goers during the event’s final hour. While these efforts are nascent and far from being implemented systematically, they show Iowans’ clear self-awareness and perseverance in making the caucuses more inclusive for the community.
The Iowa caucuses should also be commended for the qualities that separate them from their primary election counterparts. The caucuses allow Iowa citizens to be seen and heard. They allow communities to hold citizens accountable because they must publicly display their personal beliefs, promoting camaraderie and community.
Should the Iowa caucuses be abolished? It’s a tough question to answer. While a primary system would likely increase electorate participation, this process is not without its faults either. Political factions, governments, and third parties would still be able to forge paths to suppress voters. Not to mention, transportation services and disability accommodations would still need to be integrated into the system.
Beyond the flaws of the primary system, doing away with the Iowa caucuses may mean compromising their unparalleled ability to bring communities together. It could mean discounting the efforts of the thousands of Iowans who strove to unify a scattered party and make accessible a system that can often be suppressive. This is the essence of democracy. It could lead to dismissing the friendly debates and sincere conversations that electrified thousands of Iowans on February 3. These are the everlasting effects of communal politics. It could lead to dismantling a system that empowers individuals in the heartland and ultimately weakening a region of the United States that is so often forgotten.
The caucuses were conceived by humans, and thus will continue to be as fluid as human beings are. With this humanity comes a large degree of imperfection, and it is this very imperfection that keeps caucus-goers pushing for a more democratic tomorrow.
Our Columbia community operates within an imperfect system too. From club exclusivity to an increasingly strained relationship with the Harlem community, there are many ways that even we as a University community exclude individuals from our many privileges. Rather than “canceling” the Iowa caucuses, Columbia students should recognize the efforts taking place in Iowa. They should recognize that in the face of an inherently flawed system, individuals must simultaneously work to better the system while rallying to reform it.
As future leaders, thinkers, and changemakers, Columbia students must not discount the efforts that are made day and night to keep the soul of democracy alive in the heartland. Let’s learn from the Iowa caucuses and strive to improve any system in which we participate, from the campus clubs we lead to the polling locations where we very publicly or privately proclaim our love for a candidate.
Anuja is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and human rights. She is from Fairfield, Iowa. If you ever want to discuss corn, fried butter on a stick, or why the term “pop” is superior to “soda”, feel free to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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