Saturday, June 10, 2023

[From FHQ Plus] Folks, the new caucus law in Iowa does not affect state Democrats' plans for 2024

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There is a lot going on with the new caucus law in Iowa. Governor Kim Reynolds signed HF 716 on Thursday, June 1 and the measure requires in-person participation at precinct caucuses that select delegates as part of a presidential nominating process. That one fairly simple change has created a great deal of confusion as to the true nature of its effects for the two major parties in the state in 2024. But just because the new requirement fits into a complicated web of component parts does not mean that one cannot suss out what is going on here. 

Here is what is going on in the Hawkeye state now that the law has been changed.

1) This new law does not affect the delegate selection plans for 2024 that Iowa Democrats have previewed. It does not. Read the language of the change:

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.

Everything one needs to know about that entire section and how it interacts with the Iowa Democratic Party delegate selection plan is right there in that one highlighted word, select. The proposed vote-by-mail component of the Democrats’ defined “caucus” procedure has nothing to do with the process of selecting delegates. It has everything to do with the allocation of delegates. That all-mail presidential preference vote affects the allocation and not the selection process. As such, it is unaffected by what Governor Reynolds signed into law on Thursday. 

The selection process for delegates to the national convention will commence at the precinct caucuses, presumably on the same night for Democrats in Iowa as Republicans. According to the draft plan from Iowa Democrats, that part will be conducted in person. It would comply with the new law. 

2) Just because the provisions of the Iowa Democratic Party draft delegate selection plan for 2024 comply with the newly signed law does not mean the law is constitutional. Private political parties have the first amendment right to freely associate, to freely and independently determine the rules of how their members associate. The new law abridges that freedom to some degree by requiring in-person participation. 

Look, Democrats in Iowa may sue in an attempt to have this restriction rescinded, but that action would be taken because it infringes on the party’s broad first amendment rights and not because it affects the party’s plans for the 2024 presidential nominating process. It does not.

The big issue here is that actors in Iowa have blurred the lines on this for more than 50 years to protect the first-in-the-nation status of the caucuses. State government decision makers have legislated their way into political party business. And that works when everyone is on the same page, regardless of party. But when there is a split along partisan lines like there is in 2023, and one side attempts to further legislate to further insulate first-in-the-nation status, it raises red flags with respect to how much state law has crept into party business. That is what provoked this response from Iowa Democrats to the bill’s signing on Thursday:

"No political party can tell another political party how to conduct its party caucuses. Iowa Democrats will do what's best for Iowa, plain and simple," Hart said. "For many years, Iowa Democrats have worked in good faith with the Republicans to preserve our caucuses. This legislation ends decades of bipartisanship, and now Kim Reynolds has signed off on this attempt to meddle in Democratic party business."

Yet, that has nothing to do with Iowa Democratic Party plans for 2024.

3) One additional layer to all of this that FHQ should reiterate is that Iowa Democrats do everyone a disservice by continuing to call this new and newly bifurcated delegate selection process a “caucus.” It is not. There is a caucus component to it, the selection process. But overall, the whole thing is not a caucus. A traditional caucus process basically merges the beginning of the delegate selection process with the delegate allocation process. But under the plan, the precinct caucuses only affect the initial stages of the selection process. Again, the allocation process is separate and dictated by the results of the proposed vote-by-mail presidential preference vote. 

That is a long name. Let’s give it another one: party-run primary. The proposed preference vote is a party-run primary. It is that simple. Iowa Democrats’ plan for 2024 brings the party in line with the bifurcated process in nearly all state-run and party-run primary states. It is, in other words, completely normal. 

But Iowa Democrats continue to call this entire process a caucus. It is understandable why. There is a certain branding behind the caucuses as they have existed at the front of the presidential primary queue for half a century. Obviously that would be difficult to give up. And that is why Iowa Democrats have bent themselves into pretzels to satisfy both the national party and folks at home to whom being first matters. Thus, the caucus component of the process — the selection part, recall — will remain first in the nation and the party-run primary part will happen at a time that likely complies with DNC rules. All of this, of course, assumes the plan is approved by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee in the end. If it does not comply, then the plan will not be granted approval.

But let’s call a spade a spade. Iowa Democrats will have a party-run primary in 2024 if this plan is approved. They can call it what they want, but calling it a caucus only confuses things in the near term as all of this dust settles. 

4) Another point of confusion in the coverage of this new law is the how it affects the delicate relationship — one forged over half a century — between Iowa and New Hampshire. To repeat, this new law does not affect the plans Iowa Democrats have for their delegate selection process in 2024. By extension, then, it does not affect anything between Iowa and New Hampshire. 

The bottom line for New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scalan in all of this is simple. He is looking at one thing. One thing: the date on which the vote-by-mail preference vote concludes. Now, if that process were to wrap up on caucus night in early to mid-January, then yes, Secretary Scanlan would likely take issue with that move and act accordingly with respect to the scheduling of the presidential primary in the Granite state. He would, because of the law there, schedule the primary for before the end of the preference vote. 

But what if that preference vote ended not only after the precinct caucuses, but well after them? What if both that process concluded and the result were released some time in February (if a waiver was granted by the DNC to Iowa instead of Georgia and/or New Hampshire) or in March or later? Well, Secretary Scanlan would have little to worry about in that scenario. He could nudge the New Hampshire primary up beyond the South Carolina Democratic primary scheduled for February 3 and any other similar election that might slot into the calendar before that point. 

Iowa Democrats are angling for an early window slot on the Democratic primary calendar. That is the hold up right now. Once that date is known, the New Hampshire conflict will materialize and intensify or it will not. Iowa Democrats appear to be trying their darnedest to get back into the good graces of the national party after 2020, so the odds are very good that all of this supposed friction between Iowa and New Hampshire will melt away once the timing question is answered. 

But to reiterate, that supposed friction has nothing to do with this law. It has everything to do with the date of the preference vote being unknown. The two things are separate despite what the Republicans driving this change to the law in the Iowa legislature may suggest. That became clear when the bill was amended and passed the state House on May 1. Those changes to the initial bill gave Iowa Democrats the flexibility they needed to move forward with the delegate selection plan they unveiled two days later. The in-person requirement was window dressing for New Hampshire, but the real change was in the registration requirements the new law allows the parties to set. It is not specified but Iowa Republicans can institute the 70 day registration buffer that was stripped from the initial bill because of the broad discretion the new law affords the state party.

Is all of this complicated? 

Sure, there are a lot of component parts to it all. But those parts can be parsed out and that is what is missing in nearly all of the coverage of this new law in Iowa. There seems to be a lot of throw all of the information out there, let everyone figure it all out on their own and assume chaos. Hey, it gets clicks. But one does not have do dig too deeply or work too hard to put the puzzle pieces together. And that way chaos does not necessarily lie.


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