Democrats’ push to expand the voting pool is beginning to face scrutiny within the party’s ranks when it comes to the Iowa caucuses, where some fear allowing absentee voting would change the essence of the iconic event.
The caucuses reward the most committed voters, requiring people to brave a cold winter night to spend hours meeting with neighbors and trying to sway their support for candidates. Voters physically go stand in groups to signify their choices.
But that clashes with Democrats’ national focus on making voting easier, where voters would be able to have a say without having to show up in person.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who pushed the change, said last month he wants to make sure the shift worker or member of the military who can’t show up in person still has a say.
But Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Iowa Democrats, said he is worried the change would give deep-pocketed candidates an edge, allowing them to pay to groom voters with mailings, then pay canvassers to harvest absentee ballots.
“It could make it a money game,” Mr. Bagniewski said. “If you have more money to register voters and to get absentee ballot requests, you can flood the caucuses with absentee ballot requests.”
Others have protested that absentee participation is incompatible with the caucus system, where voters physically group with others who support their candidate.
If a candidate can’t get a minimum level of support in a particular caucus location, that candidate is deemed not viable and supporters then must join another candidate or remain uncommitted.
Critics say moving away from that system will make the caucuses more like a primary — and could draw the ire of New Hampshire, which aggressively guards its nation’s-first-primary status.
A little more than 171,000 Democrats participated in the caucuses in 2016.
The caucus changes were proposed last year by the DNC’s Unity Reform Commission, comprised of members appointed by 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernard Sanders and Mr. Perez.
State parties were encouraged to adopt same-day registration and same-day party switching in Democratic primaries.
Meanwhile, caucus states were told absentee voting is a must.
In addition to Iowa, at least a half-dozen other states used caucuses in 2016.
Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democrats and veteran of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, said the party must submit its plans for carrying out the changes to the DNC this spring.
He downplayed fears.
“It is not necessarily an absentee ballot,” Mr. Price said. “We want a process that preserves the caucuses, allows people to have their voices heard and makes sure it is a safe and secure and open and transparent process.”
Some have batted around the idea of casting votes by phone or through a proxy, which would preserve some of the same-day caucus interaction.
Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University, said there are many unknowns, including how much of a difference absentee voting would make on turnout.
“We just don’t know who this is going to play out,” he said.
Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, a Democrat, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“When the caucuses started, it was in someone’s house,” Mrs. Judge said. “You had coffee and some cookies and you talked with your neighbors and no one thought too much about it.”
“I don’t know how we handle this absentee business and what line is it that we cross from being a caucus to being a primary,” she said. “Anything that moves us away from that gathering of friends and neighbors, which was the original intent, the further we move away from that, the more money has to influence.”
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