Democrats consider absentee voting for 2016 Iowa Caucuses

I had a conference call today with Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan; Norm Sterzenbach, the former executive director of the party and Christina Freundlich, the IPD’s communications director. Brennan has asked Sterzenbach to hold a series of “listening sessions” about the idea of absentee voting for the 2016 Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses.

Here’s the transcript of our discussion:

Henderson: “What are you guys thinking of in terms of expanding participation in the Caucuses?”

Brennan: “What essentially we are looking at is at least starting a process to consider whether it’s even feasible to expand access on Caucus Day because, obviously, the Caucuses take place at a particular point in time and for some people that’s not very available to them and so what we’re looking at, at least from a starting point, is how do we get our servicemen and women in a position where they could participate and maybe those in nursing homes or those who are sick. How we get there is the big question.”

Henderson: “I remember the Clinton team had complained about people who had shift work, who had to work at the time when the Caucuses were scheduled. You mentioned people in nursing homes and service members, but is this also targeting those folks?”

Brennan: “Everything is on the table. I mean, we’re looking at everything, but, at the end of the day, it’s what is actually feasible, but, if we’re going to be going this big ‘listening tour’ and Norm has the happy duty of talking to hundreds, if not thousands of folks about what they think and how this might work, then everything is on the table to talk about, whether there’s a way to enhance access and do it in a manner that keeps the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses and still lets peoples’ voices be heard, that’s what we want to do.”

Henderson: “The argument that has always been made to people who have suggested absentee (voting), is that’s not what the Caucus is about. The Caucus is about a meeting at which people meet face-to-face to discuss issues important in their neighborhood and, ultimately, important to the party. Doesn’t letting someone essentially have a proxy vote to determine delegates sort of defeat the argument about what the Caucuses are about at their core?”

Brennan: “And I think that’s the purpose of the listening tour and Norm can break in at any time, but I think that it is absolutely the process of talking to folks is to figuring out is there is a way to do this that maintains the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses, because it is about folks who talk, so is there a way to accomplish that? I just don’t have any idea what that looks like, but we want to at least start the process of talking about it. The mot important thing is that we maintain the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.”

Sterzenbach: “That’s right Scott.  One of the major tenants in the Democratic Party has always expanding access to voting to more and more groups of people and make it easier for more people to participate in the process, but at the same time our Caucuses, the spirit of the Caucuses is that neighborhood gathering that takes place on Caucus night, and so the main purpose here is to figure out if we can find a way bridge those two things — if it is possible to expand participation while at the same time maintaining the spirit of the Caucuses. If it can’t be done, at least we can say we tried.”

Henderson: “How would you accommodate second-round voting?”

Brennan: (laughter) “See, now you’re getting in to the nuances. We really don’t know. That’s the purpose of starting this process to see if it’s even feasible because I don’t know what that looks like, but we’ve utilized some technological advancements in the last couple of rounds of Caucuses. Maybe there’s something there that could be useful. We don’t know. There are lots and lots of voices out there that need to be heard before we sort of come up with a proposal, if we can even reach some sort of consensus proposal.”

Henderson: “Would you ever consider the kind of straw poll, essentially, that the Republicans do?  Your results are always tied to delegates.”

Brennan:  “I haven’t thought about it. I hate to say that nothing’s on the table, but I would be surprised if we would do something like a straw poll, but I think we start with no preconceived notions Isn’t that right, Norm?”

Sterzenbach: “I think that’s right, although I think one of the most important pieces of this whole thing is — at least in the conversations that we’ve had so far — is that people want to make sure we protect what the Caucuses are all about and the traditions that we have there. I would be surprised if we would make that dramatic of a change during this process, but — again — every thing is on the table, but at least in the conversations I’ve had so far, people want to be able to protect the formation of preference groups and those conversations that happen on Caucus Night to develop a consensus around one or two candidates statewide, so I would be surprised if we made that dramatic of a change.”

Henderson: “I remember somebody back in late 2011 suggesting something weird, a virtual Caucus where it would be done online. Could you create maybe a few new precincts or maybe congressional district precincts where you would have a virtual Caucus, where that would be the absentee participation and, therefore, you could participate in that second round of voting?”

Sterzenbach: “It’s funny that you mention that, Kay. I really wanted to try that in 2012, particularly with the president broadcasting into the Caucuses, delivering a speech on Caucus Night.  It just wasn’t something that we were able to work out for 2012, but I think the technology will likely play a large role in this if we are able to come up with a proposal that works and there are just a lot of different technologies that are out there that could make this very possible — anything from sort of an electronic submission of people’s preferences to using Skype or other video technology, so I think we’ve got to look at all the options that out there and figure out what might make sense. You know one of the issues that we do have is the access to broadband across the state, so that is one of the limitations in some parts of our state, having access to certain technologies in their precincts, so a lot of things have to be considered, but that is certainly one idea that has come up.”

Henderson: “I guess my final question would be you know you have Secretary of State for life Bill Gardner up in New Hampshire, you have DNC Rules — walk me through how you how to negotiation changing the rules and what would be a step too far to either trigger a response from the New Hampshire Primary protector or the DNC?”

Brennan: “The Rules & Bylaws Committee is going to start its process of looking at the presidential selection rules for the 2016 presidential cycle in early May and we will be a part of that process.  If we can reach some sort of consensus and we can offer something I believe that would be something we would submit to the DNC in early 2015, with the thought that then the Rules & Bylaws Committee can look at it and it can ultimately be submitted for approval to the DNC. Along with that process we obviously have a strong relationship with New Hampshire and we will talk with them during the process, to make sure that everyone is comfortable with everyone’s place in the process.”

Henderson: “Is there something else I didn’t touch upon that you think is crucial?

Freundlich: “Norm, if you just touch, briefly on what the next steps are, how we seethe next few months going, I think that would be helpful.”

Sterzenbach: “Sure. Basically we’re going to have, as Scott alluded to, hundreds of conversations with folks in our party whether they’re the grassroots of our party, people who have chaired precinct Caucuses in the last few cycles, our country chairs, our state central committee members, as well as other Caucuses experts — you know, folks like Richard Bender, Dave Nagle, others like that — as well as people who have administered the Caucuses from the state party perspective  as well as those who have worked on presidential campaigns and really get feedback on whether there is an appetite for this process and then how that might work and whether or not this can be done while protecting the spirit of the Caucuses. I think that is going to take place between now and the end of June, around the state convention, and if we feel like there is an avenue to go forward, then throughout the summer we’ll actually spend time coming up with a proposal to then shop back around in the fall to some of those same groups of people, to make sure there’s consensus around a particular proposal. Our state central committee will ultimately review it and if they believe it’s a good option, they’ll take a vote on it and pass it and then we’ll submit it to the DNC as part of our delegate selection plan early next year.”

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.