Friday, January 29, 2016

Iowa caucuses give rural voters an opportunity to be heard

In Iowa, where rural areas "make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population," the caucuses give rural voters the chance to have their voices heard and get face-to-face time with presidential candidates, Alicia Parlapiano, Brent McDonald and Larry Buchanan report for The New York Times. "Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities."

"Iowa often has its first-in-the-nation voting status called into question, in part because its demographics (the state is 92 percent white) don’t represent the country as a whole," reports the Times. "But Iowans will proudly defend their position, citing their deep commitment to the process and the lengths to which they will go to scrutinize the candidates."

"Caucuses are run by the parties, not the state, so the bulk of the organizing falls to volunteer committee members, who are driven by a passion less for individual candidates than for their parties’ values and the grass-roots political process," reports the Times. Jordan Pope, chairman of the Decatur County Democrats, who, at 18, is the youngest county chairman or chairwoman in Iowa, told the Times, "I think being in a rural area, you’re able to step up to the plate and take more responsibilities, which is awesome and a little scary also. I have friends in Texas and Alabama, and they’re always jealous when they see me taking selfies with presidential candidates. Yeah, you have primaries there, but the main way they see their candidates is on a TV screen.” (NYT graphic: Despite losing population rural voters in Iowa take the caucuses seriously)
One of the strengths of the caucuses it that they "are not designed for anonymity: Everyone arrives at once and can make a pitch for their favorite candidate in front of the entire group," reports the Times. "While the Republicans vote secretly on scraps of paper, the process for Democrats requires caucusgoers to declare their preference by physically standing in a candidate’s designated corner." 

One problem is that "Iowa's 99 counties have shrunk in population since 1990, with the most rural areas hit the hardest," reports the Times. "The 18- to 34-year-old share of the population has decreased in all but four counties in the state, rural and urban alike. The shedding of Iowa’s rural population has made it more difficult for the parties to recruit and maintain leaders for their county committees. At the same time, a growing dependence on out-of-state paid staff members in election years has left many counties without local volunteers who have the skills to maintain their organizations in non-election years."

Another problem has been technology, reports the Times. Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus in 2012, but results were not released for two weeks when Mitt Romney "was said to have won." Officials have worked to curb that problem, this year "replacing their paper and landline vote reporting system with a digital one" that will verify totals within 48 hours. Still, some are worried that a lack of high-speed Internet in some rural areas could hamper results.

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