DES MOINES — Bob Ray has participated in Iowa’s Republican caucuses in the past, but not this year. Ray is blind, and with snow clogging the roads and subzero temperatures gripping the state, showing up on Monday is a non-starter.
“I’m 75 years old, and I’m not going to want to get out that night,” he said.
To some here, the Iowa caucuses are an exemplar of democracy, binding communities together and allowing everyday voters to connect with candidates who, a year from now, may be running the country. To others, they are an antiquated system that excludes those who — due to a disability, a work shift, a flat tire, child care needs, extreme weather or any other factor — can’t turn up on the one night every four years when Iowa voters get a say in picking presidential nominees.
Voters must be at their precincts at 7 p.m. Central time on Monday, where they will hear speeches from representatives of the candidates, fill out ballots and, if they want, observe as the votes get tallied. No early or absentee voting is allowed, except for a tiny number of military service members.
States adopted caucuses in the early 19th century to choose delegates to send to national party conventions. As primaries became popularized nationally in the 1970s, Iowa stuck with its caucuses. Over the last half century the state has soaked up attention from candidates and the media by holding the first presidential nominating contest in the country.
The vast majority of states now conduct primaries, which allow more people to participate because voters can cast ballots whenever convenient on Election Day — or, often times, before then by voting by mail or at an early-voting site.
Democrats are increasingly critical of caucuses, and they are conducting a mail-in primary in Iowa this year that concludes in March. Iowa Republicans remain committed to the caucuses, saying that even in inclement weather, the process has been proven to work.
While Iowa’s caucuses make it more challenging to vote, they have their advantages, said Rachel Paine Caufield, a Drake University political science professor.
Candidates need to connect with voters in a way that makes them willing to take the extra steps the caucuses require, she said. Because of the structure of the caucuses and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status — at least among Republicans — candidates repeatedly visit the state and hold small events where voters can drill them about their stances. The arrangement makes Iowa a proving ground for candidates, and successful ones find that it strengthens their campaigns, she said.
“If you get rid of a process like this, I think it’s much easier for candidates with big money and a lot of name recognition to sail in, run a bunch of ads in an expensive media market and dominate the airwaves and thereby gain a lot of casual support,” she said. “And that can’t happen in Iowa. You’ve got to have a lot more than that.”
While Iowa’s system allows citizens to frequently meet candidates, it also results in lower voter participation. In 2016, the last time there were competitive primaries for both parties, just 15.7 percent of eligible voters attended either Republican or Democratic caucuses.
A week later, more than half the eligible voters in New Hampshire cast ballots in that state’s primary, according to data kept by University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. Many other states with primaries had turnout rates in the 30s that year, more than twice as high as Iowa.
Just weeks ago, Iowa Republicans boasted of the possibility of record turnout for their caucuses this year. In recent days they tamped down expectations as the weather forecast grew grim.
Those who are blind, use wheelchairs or have other health issues face unique challenges in participating in caucuses, said advocates for those with disabilities. Primaries are run by the states and must adhere to federal laws that require polling places and voting methods to be accessible. Caucuses are run by political parties and don’t have to meet the same requirements.
Some voters need assistance marking their caucus ballot, but caucus sites aren’t equipped with the technology that assists voters in states with primaries. Many don’t have a way to get to and from their caucus precincts. “In rural areas, there’s basically zero transportation at night,” said Brooke Lovelace, executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council.
Democrats in Iowa shifted to a mail-in primary after the Democratic National Committee rearranged its nominating schedule. At the time, Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Rita Hart said she wanted to create an “inclusive” process. Republicans have remained committed to the Iowa caucuses, and Republicans in other states have called for exploring establishing caucuses to ensure Trump can run even if he loses legal challenges and is kicked off the primary ballot.
The Iowa Republican Party on Friday advised caucus-goers to take account of the dangerous weather hitting the state and give themselves enough time to get to their precincts safely. Iowa GOP spokesman Kush Desai said the party had conducted caucuses in freezing temperatures before and would not be changing course this year.
“Ultimately Iowans are well acclimated to Midwest winters and understand what’s at stake for our country,” he said in a written statement.
Iowans risk losing the attention they covet if the Republicans also abandon the caucuses. New Hampshire has a state law requiring it to hold the first primary in the country, and Iowa has been able to conduct its nominating contest earlier because it uses caucuses. If it were to move to a primary, it could lose its first-place status with the GOP. (Just as they did with Iowa, Democrats shifted their attention away from New Hampshire when they changed their nominating schedule.)
Jon Moss, a 43-year-old resident of suburban Des Moines, plans to caucus on Monday. He said he sees the process as an opportunity to have “true involvement with your community,” especially because those who attend are so well-informed. “In terms of a democratic process, this is probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Moss.
Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said the caucuses and the style of campaigning they require allow voters to ask candidates tough questions and hear from other voters about what they think of their options. The interaction with candidates and other voters “contributes to civic health,” she said.
In Iowa’s caucuses, voters are allowed to register at their precincts, which allows people to decide at the last minute to attend. That’s an opportunity voters in some states don’t have because they require people to be registered to vote weeks before their primaries, Kedrowski said.
Jan Felthous, a retired teacher who lives in Ely in eastern Iowa, attended former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley’s visit to Cedar Rapids on Thursday as she continues to take stock of the candidates. Felthous, 76, said she would likely participate in the caucuses but wished the state held a primary.
“I think the caucus is kind of confusing,” she said. “So I would prefer just to vote.”
Another attendee at the Haley event, Kent Kluver, said he doesn’t consider Iowa’s system a perfect one but likes that it brings candidates to a state that they might otherwise ignore. And on caucus night he enjoys hearing in person from other Republicans who have spent months attending campaign events and studying up on the candidates.
“This sorts the cream from the milk,” the 68-year-0ld retired farm service agency manager said. “I think the people that want to get out there and do it, that are motivated, will be here. And those who are lukewarm, won’t.”