The Iowa Democratic Party hailed its plan for “satellite” caucus sites this year as a boon for disabled voters who for the first time would have easy-access options to join the democratic process.
Disability advocates, however, say the party is just paying lip service to the special needs community.
“This is not a solution, it is the appearance of a solution,” said Emmanuel Smith, a disability activist in Des Moines. “As a member of the disabled community, I think it is incredibly important that our voice is heard and valued, and that is not the message I am getting from the Democratic Party.”
The Iowa caucuses are the most iconic stop on the American presidential circuit and have served as a launching pad for White House hopefuls, including Barack Obama in 2008 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, since the state became the leadoff contest in the early 1970s.
But the process has faced mounting criticism, including from 2020 presidential hopefuls, about the electorate’s lack of diversity — it is roughly 90% white — and disenfranchised voters.
The party’s emphasis on voting rights and diversity has fueled more griping from activists across the nation about the antiquated system.
Looking to blunt the criticism, the state party sought to make the process more inclusive. It eventually settled on the “satellite” caucus system.
More than 90 “satellite” sites are slated for caucus night Feb. 3.
They are being held across the U.S., from Arizona to Florida and Rhode Island, as well as overseas, including in Scotland, France and the Republic of Georgia.
The lion’s share of the “satellite” gatherings will be held in Iowa at labor union halls, community colleges and assisted care facilities to accommodate shift workers, students, seniors and disabled people.
“Our goal has remained steadfast throughout this process — to make these caucuses the most accessible in our party’s history, and the satellite caucuses do just that,” Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democrats, said last year.
Dave Yepsen, who covered Iowa politics as a journalist for decades, said the change isn’t likely to make a huge impact this year because it is so new and a limited number of people are expected to take advantage of it.
“But if successful they could be much more important next cycle — if there are caucuses,” he said.
Disability rights groups, meanwhile, said the plan fell short of the goal. They said it would not ease the burden for the nearly 300,000 Iowans with special needs who are registered to vote. Barriers they cite include a lack of requirements to make the satellite sites accessible, overly complex rules to host a remote caucus, and heaps of extra work dumped on caucus hosts without support from the party.
“There is kind of a message out there that the Democrat Party is serving people with disabilities, but we think there is still a lot of I’s to be dotted and T’s to be crossed before people with disabilities can access the caucuses,” said Anne Matte, voting outreach coordinator for Disability Rights Iowa, an advocacy group.
Mr. Smith, who has brittle bone disease, said he couldn’t get answers from state Democrats after applying to host a satellite caucus in the lobby of his apartment building. With the caucuses roughly three weeks away, Mr. Smith said his host responsibilities are still not clear.
“It, frankly, has been a nightmare so far. I had to apply without an understanding of my obligations,” he said. “It is very frustrating when you apply to do something without knowing the rules or what you are taking on.”
Hosting a satellite caucus has burdened Mr. Smith with extra work. He is doing everything from designing and printing posters to promote the event to navigating complex caucus math to determine the delegate allotment.
“This is putting a burden on a marginalized population to earn their entry into the process. It is not right to put that on us,” he said.
“I asked the DNC to send a poster that I could use and they told me it would be too time-consuming for a satellite location,” he said. “It seems pretty easy to copy and paste them into a template. If I am a person on the street, how am I supposed to know that is a legitimate caucus site or not?”
The Iowa Democratic Party initially proposed a “virtual caucus,” allowing participants to take part in six caucuses using their cellphone or smart device. But that idea was rejected by the Democratic National Committee amid security concerns.
Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, said the satellite caucuses do not meet the needs of voters who have disabilities. She said there is no guidance on how to make the remote sites accessible nor is anyone ensuring the locations comply with federal law.
The DNC allocated money for the Iowa Democratic Party to hire a caucus accessibility director to develop a plan. That position is still advertised as “open” on Iowa Democrats’ website.
“It’s almost like benign neglect,” Ms. Hudson said. “They are not trying to exclude people with disabilities, but they don’t have the knowledge to be inclusive.”
With less than a month until Feb. 3, worries grow that disabled Iowans’ voices won’t be heard.
“The thing we are most worried about is that we will hear about problems after the fact,” said Brooke Lovelace, executive director of Iowans in Action, a group that tries to get disabled individuals more involved in the Iowa caucuses.
“There hasn’t been a good way to determine why many disabled people didn’t even try to participate in 2016. There is so much unknown about how many people with disabilities actually caucus,” she said.
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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