Early Voting and the Iowa Caucus: Can They Coexist?

A great article in Salon by the always insightful Steven Rosenfeld illustrates the difficulties of implementing national party mandates for a fully inclusive primary system while retaining the unique in-person and face to face features of the Iowa caucus.

The immediate takeaway from the article is that the phone-based system for “virtual voting” that was proposed in Iowa and Nevada has severe security risks, and it’s been abandoned. The bigger question, it seems to me, is whether or not requiring absentee (and presumably early) voting in Iowa will fundamentally alter the dynamics of this contest, with reverberations down the line in our sequential nominating process.

In Why Iowa, Professors David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert, and Todd Donovan provide a full-throated defense of Iowa’s first in the nation caucus. Two parts of their argument are distinct from caucus rules–they defend a sequential process and Iowa’s position in that process.

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the caucus itself, and how the caucus rules; public learning, information, deliberation and participation levels; and media coverage are unique to the caucus.

From an election administration and electoral process perspective, it’s not clear to me that a requirement for some kind of “absentee voting” can be squared with the caucus as it is currently designed.

It seems to me–and Dave, Caroline, and Todd will surely correct me if I’m wrong–that their argument about the merits of the Iowa caucus is largely one driven by locality and place. You need to be in Iowa, experiencing the candidate visits, canvassing, media scrutiny, and engaging in conversations with your fellow citizens. We may cynically dismiss the role of face to face politics in this day and age, but their results show that face to face politics really matters in Iowa.

How can one participate in a caucus if the ballot is cast by phone or over the internet, weeks before the event? Isn’t this fundamentally a different kind of voting?

We might have had an answer in 2020 (yay research!) but for now, virtual voting in Iowa looks like it’s not in the cards.