Change Iowa’s Secret Ballot

January 2nd, 2012 at 1:15 pm | 14 Comments |

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University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom has gotten a lot of well-deserved criticism for an error-ridden piece in The Atlantic that’s sets new records for academic elitism, distain, and distate for just about everything about his adopted state. Much as I abhor Bloom’s style–it represents just about everything that drove me away from my parents’ uber-left views–I think that his point that Iowa’s role in the presidential nominating contest is overblown has something to it.

At least on the Republican side, the nature of the Iowa process tends to give far too much power to forces and figures that do no good for the GOP or its cause. A closer look, however, shows that the real problem seems to have nothing to do with the Iowa voters and a lot to do with the way Iowa’s GOP runs the elections.

The election results don’t lie: even though plausible nominees have always finished on top, fringe figures like Pat Robertson (25 percent to eventual nominee George H.W. Bush’s 19 percent in 1988), Pat Buchanan (23 percent to eventual nominee Bob Dole’s 26 percent in 1996) and Alan Keyes (a surprisingly strong 14 percent third-place showing in 2000) have done gained credibility and power in Iowa that they simply couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. Whether he wins outright or finishes a strong second–one of the two seems inevitable–Ron Paul seems almost certain to join this motley role call. Giving more power to angry, bigoted, unelectable, conspiracy-minded types does any good for the GOP or the conservative movement in general.

That said, Iowa–a middle-American state with very good public education, a strong mix of different interests, and a political culture where neither party is utterly dominant–sure looks like a pretty good place to hold early primaries on the surface. Its elected officials from both parties tend to be sober-minded men (it has never sent a woman to Congress) near the center of their parties.

So what gives? The problem may really lie in the oddball “secret ballot caucus” that the Iowa GOP uses. People who want to make their voices heard in the GOP nominating process have to show up at local caucus meetings meetings, listen to an hour or two of speeches from locals who support candidates and then write the name of the candidate they favor on a blank sheet of paper that others (at least in theory) can’t see. Absentee voting isn’t allowed.

That process is a dream come true for fringe candidates. Because takes a long time on a school night, people with business, travel, and family commitments–hard-working, family-oriented people who make up the great bulk of the electorate that the GOP says it wants to target–often can’t be bothered to show up.

On the other hand, the secret nature of the ballot (most other caucuses, including those of Iowa’s Democratic Party, use an open ballot) means that nobody who casts a vote for a fringe candidate has to answer for it in front of their neighbors. The result is that people who don’t work, don’t have families at home, but are committed to wacky political theories are much more likely to caucus. Furthermore, the lack of true ballot-booth-type privacy in most settings means that peer pressure of whoever screams the loudest may well impact some votes.

The simplest answer to all of this would be for Iowa to switch to an election-like traditional primary where voting takes only a few minutes. If Iowans really can’t abide this, however, the GOP should at least consider switching to the less fringe-friendly open ballot caucus system that gets used everywhere else. In any case, the Iowa GOP would do itself, its state, and the Republican Party a favor if it changed the way its members select candidates.

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14 Comments so far ↓

  • Dex

    In other words, the problem with the Iowa GOP caucus is the predilection of the GOP base for nutters who tell lies they enjoy hearing.

  • sweatyb

    Why is Iowa always first, again?

    • anewc2

      My recollection is that party rules prohibited any other state from having a primary earlier than New Hampshire, and so Iowa, to make a splash earlier than NH they had to go to some non-primary form of event. They did a technical end-run around the rules to insert themselves into first place.

  • Graychin

    The Iowa Caucuses are what they are. The only things that needs reforming are the morons who consider it to be a make-or-break event for mainstream, well-funded presidential candidates.

    Eli’s problem with Iowa is that insurgency really, really upsets Republicans. They like things kept nice and orderly, with The One being anointed in the boardrooms, not at the polls. (Hey Eli – do you identify with the Alex character on Family Ties?)

    For good or ill, Iowa is a great democratizer of the presidential race. It’s an opportunity for a credible but little-known candidate with good retail skills and not so much money to make a splash in a small market in advance of the later primaries. (I’m sure there’s an obvious example available who has slipped my mind for the moment.)

    • mlindroo

      > It’s an opportunity for a credible but little-known candidate
      > with good retail skills and not so much money to make
      > a splash in a small market in advance of the later primaries.

      That’s a good argument, Graychin, but IA and NH are demographic outliers so it’s a bit unfair that the early primaries are always held in those states.
      The Dems, in particular, might regard Nevada or Missouri as more representative “swing states” since there are no major cities or ethnic minorities in Iowa and New Hampshire.

      MARCU$

      • MSheridan

        In re: the Democrats and the early primary states, I agree with you.

        I don’t see it as a serious issue for the GOP, though. Aside from maybe Florida, I can’t call to mind any state in which they any longer have a significant strength outside their core demographic. Nationally, they had started to make significant inroads with Hispanics up through 2000, but over the last decade they have lost a lot of ground. So their caucuses tend to look the same whatever state they’re held in.

  • LauraNo

    I don’t think the answer to fringe candidates making a good showing is to negate the votes of people who “don’t work” or “have families at home”. Those people deserve to have their viewpoint represented and if the party doesn’t like their viewpoint, it shouldn’t have fostered the ignorance that brought them to that viewpoint. GWB, at least, told people they should not hate Muslims and voila! they behaved with civility. No GWB, no civility. Same with immigration. Same with gays. If the party wants the fringe’s votes but not their whackiness, it should start leading them instead of pandering to them and should start speaking about reality instead of making up alternate worlds where the worst economic crisis in ages is supposedly just the right time to impose austerity on the innocent while cutting taxes for the guilty.

  • MSheridan

    That process is a dream come true for fringe candidates. Because [it] takes a long time on a school night, people with business, travel, and family commitments–hard-working, family-oriented people who make up the great bulk of the electorate that the GOP says it wants to target–often can’t be bothered to show up.

    A plausible theory, I suppose, although I consider “can’t be bothered to show up” a no-show on any list of semi-acceptable excuses in any matter of importance.

    On the other hand, the secret nature of the ballot (most other caucuses, including those of Iowa’s Democratic Party, use an open ballot) means that nobody who casts a vote for a fringe candidate has to answer for it in front of their neighbors. The result is that people who don’t work, don’t have families at home, but are committed to wacky political theories are much more likely to caucus. Furthermore, the lack of true ballot-booth-type privacy in most settings means that peer pressure of whoever screams the loudest may well impact some votes.

    Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, Eli, you are seriously coming out against a secret ballot because it doesn’t allow for enough peer pressure?!

    Did you show this piece to anyone before posting and, if so, did no one point out how grossly contrary to American ideals that sentiment is? There could well be good reasons to adopt an open ballot in some instances, but increased peer pressure is not one of them.

    • LauraNo

      Maybe he is so used to march-in-lock-step nature of his party that he can’t stomach an independent thought from others? He has my sympathies about the nature of those independent thoughts, however.

      • MSheridan

        I hear you, but I’m not sure the word independent is quite right in this context. It connotes someone with views outside mainstream opinion, and it may well be that Eli is himself an “independent” compared to the majority of Republican primary voters, not just in Iowa but in ANY state. We’ll know soon enough, I guess.

  • Houndentenor

    This is ridiculous. People have a right to vote for whatever candidate they choose, even if the rest of us view them as being on the fringe. These early primaries give us a glimpse of what America might look like with a parliamentary system. The religious right would have a party, the neocons, the wall street/business types, the libertarians, etc. All those folks are usually represented in the GOP primary. The candidate that emerges will be a compromise but those elements of the party deserve to be heard. That’s democracy. I don’t know why it bothers some people so much. Yes, it’s horrifying to many of us that people like Santorum and Bachmann are taken seriously by so many people, but that is a major element of the current Republican Party.

  • amoshias

    I think it sets a new record for chutzpah to start an article with an ad hominem attack against someone you agree with, including the phrase “error-ridden”… and then presenting us with an article that clearly hasn’t even had a first proofreading pass.

    Seriously. Normally I would never make fun of something as trivial as one, or two, or three, or four major typos in an article… but when you START said article by attacking someone else’s article, it’s hard to hold back.

  • heap

    kinda interesting that somebody quick to label others elitist can’t recognize the same in themselves.

    ok, not interesting, absolutely expected.

  • Giggles

    So which fringe candidates don’t you like? With that special mention for Ron Paul perhaps you prefer the Virginia system and the 10,000 signatures to keep fringe candidates out. Except, as we know that defines everyone but Paul and Romney as cranks.

    Personally, I would prefer an anonymous alternative vote system (IRV) with 1,800ish caucuses going on it provides a decent number of constituencies to then divvy up the convention votes between them.

    It would be interesting to see alternative vote (IRV) operate in the real presidential election. A ballot with Ron Paul, Buddy Roemer, Obama, Romney, the Koch brothers and Ross Perot would be amazing.