Iowans fear ab­sen­tee vot­ing would tar­nish iconic cau­cuses.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

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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