Saturday, April 15, 2023

From FHQ Plus: The Blurred Lines Between State and Party on the Caucuses in Iowa

The following is a cross-posted excerpt from FHQ Plus, FHQ's new subscription service. Come check the rest out and consider a paid subscription to support our work. 


I dealt with part of the new bill to change the parameters of the caucus process in the Hawkeye state over at FHQ earlier today. But that bill — HSB 245 — moved past its first obstacle today and out of the Study Bill Subcommittee of the Iowa House Ways and Means Committee on a 3-2 vote, and it looks like it will face a full committee vote on Thursday. [NOTE: HSB 245 passed Ways and Means on a party line vote on Thursday, April 13.]

As some have noted the effort to require in-person participation at a caucus — to ban a proposed plan by Iowa Democrats to shift to a vote-by-mail process — is a move that would immediately be on shaky legal ground. Parties have wide latitude in setting the rules of their internal processes under Supreme Court precedent. And the caucuses are a party affair. The parties pay for them. The parties set the rules. The parties run them.

But the Iowa caucus operations have often blurred the line between state and party on the matter. The parties and the state government, regardless of partisan affiliation across either, have tended to work together to protect that first-in-the-nation status the caucuses have enjoyed over the last half century. There is a state law in Iowa, as in New Hampshire, but both 2008 and 2012 demonstrated that it is fairly toothless. The caucuses in neither case were eight days ahead of the next contest, as called for in state law, and neither party was hit with sanctions for the move.

Moreover, the state/party line has been blurred by the encroachment of same-day party registration at caucus sites in recent years. The state’s tentacles stretch into the caucuses, but that still does not change the fact that the precinct caucuses are a party affair, a party-funded and run operation. And that is kind of the ironic thing about the proposed 70 day buffer required between registration with a party and the caucuses in this bill moving through the Iowa legislature. It retracts those state tentacles to some degree, drawing a sharper line again between state and party domain.

In the end, the fate of this bill beyond the committee is uncertain. But one thing this episode demonstrates is the deterioration of the relationship between Iowa Democrats and Republicans on the one thing that has united them in the past: protecting the status of the caucuses. Republicans unilaterally introducing this measure without consulting the Democratic Party at all on the matter says a lot. And in the long run that will likely hurt Iowa’s efforts to retain its status in the future. 


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