Democratic Iowa Caucus vs Primary: How It Works

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The Iowa Democratic Caucus is today on Monday, February 3, 2020. The caucuses begin in more than a thousand precincts around Iowa at 7 p.m. Central, sharp. The rules are pretty confusing and very different from how a primary works. Here’s a quick rundown of how things will work today.

Caucuses & Primaries Are Very Different

Caucus vs. Primary: what's the difference? | Just The FAQsThe 2020 election is nearing, and with that comes the caucuses and primary elections. But what’s the difference? And what role does Iowa play in this process? RELATED VIDEO: There are nearly two dozen hopefuls running in the 2020 election, each vying to become the next president. The race to the White House begins…2019-10-08T19:46:20.000Z

Caucuses and primaries are very different. In a primary, you cast a private vote for your preferred presidential nominee. In open states, you can vote in any party’s primary of your choice. In closed states, you can only vote in your registered party’s primary. You vote at your designated polling location during a specific time period, go home, and wait to hear the results, just like a general election or a presidential election. Voting is a quick process, and then you have to wait for the results.

Caucuses are handled a little differently than traditional primaries where people just cast ballots. Caucuses are basically party meetings where votes are cast (sometimes public, sometimes private.) You have to stay for much longer and show up at a very specific time. If you can’t stay for the whole time, then your vote may not count. This article will focus specifically on how the Iowa caucus works and its rules.

In Iowa, people arrive at their precinct and actually stand in specified parts of a room to show who they prefer. (Republicans just cast their vote.) There are 1,681 precincts in total in Iowa.

In most locations, the Iowa caucuses will start at 7 p.m. Central sharp. However, it’s recommended that voters arrive early, especially if they need to register, Des Moines Register reported. In fact, if you’re planning to vote then you must be there before 7 p.m. because you have to be in line by 7 p.m. Central in order to participate. (The rules may be slightly different if you’re attending a satellite caucus location rather than precinct location, as some of these may vote earlier in the day.)

How the Caucus Works

In order to be eligible to vote in an Iowa caucus, you must be at least 18 by November 3, 2020, and registered as a Democrat or Republican. You can register at the precinct caucus door if you’re not signed up yet.

If you’re attending an Iowa Democratic caucus, your precinct will first be called to order, and then representatives of the candidates may speak, but not necessarily, the Des Moines Register explained.

According to the Iowa Democratic Party, there are three main steps to an Iowa caucus:

  • First, introductions where the permanent chair and secretary are elected, along with messages from the party chair and local elected officials.
  • Second, the “Presidential Preference Vote,” which concludes with delegates being elected to attend the county convention on March 21, 2020.
  • Third, county central committee members are elected and platform planks are discussed.

When it’s time to cast the Presidential Preference Vote, people in the caucus stand in a section of the room that has been designated for their preferred candidate.

If a candidate’s voters represent at least 15 percent of the people voting overall, then that candidate is “viable” and people in that group can fill out a Presidential Preference Card. Then they’re free to leave. If your candidate is viable in the first round, you cannot realign and vote in the second round, according to the Iowa Democratic Party.

If your preferred candidate does not get 15 percent of the vote, you can take part in a second and final vote. During this vote, you can join a different candidate’s group, stay in your candidate’s group and try to acquire enough new people to be viable, or choose to be uncommitted. If your candidate was viable, you can’t change your vote. The numbers are then counted again. This is the final count and delegates are awarded based on this count.

Candidates only pick up delegates if they get at least 15 percent of the vote for their precinct. (Please note this can technically vary slightly, according to the Iowa Democratic Party. If a precinct has three delegates, the viability threshold is 16.66 percent and if it has just two delegates, the viability threshold is 25 percent.)

Because of these two votes, it’s theoretically possible that one candidate might win in some precincts’ first count but not the second after non-viable candidates’ voters pick their second choice. Sometimes candidates align and agree that if they are non-viable, they’ll encourage their voters to go to a specific viable candidate.

After the votes are counted, these are reported to the state party. The party verifies the votes and reports it to the media.

The Iowa Caucus Reports Three Numbers

The party will officially report three numbers, including the “state delegate equivalent” (which determines how many go to the national convention), CNN reported. The “state delegate equivalent” is the number typically used to show who “won.” The Iowa Democratic party will also release the vote counts for the first and final preference, which are technically called 1st alignment numbers and 2nd alignment numbers. It’s possible that there will be two different candidate “winners” for these groups.

The official “winners” are based on the State Delegate Equivalent (SDE) numbers. More than one candidate can pick up state delegates, this isn’t a winner-takes-all situation. The state delegates are determined by a ratio of state to county convention delegates.

Note that the Iowa Democratic Party does not declare a caucus winner, but simply presents results to the public, including the SDE number (the number of state delegates allotted per candidate.) An approximate allocation of national convention delegates will also be reported, the IDP noted.

The SDE will ultimately help determine how many of Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates a candidate will have in the Democratic National Convention. In order to win the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, a candidate needs a total of 1,991 pledged delegates.

In addition to the 41 pledged delegates, Iowa also has eight unpledged delegates, which include five members of the Democratic National Committee and three members of Congress. These unpledged PLEO delegates were previously known in 2016 as superdelegates. Unlike in 2016, they will only be able to vote at the Democratic National Convention if a candidate does not get a majority of votes on the first ballot at the DNC.

After the State Caucus

In Iowa, tonight’s results aren’t the last step before the Democratic National Convention. After this, county conventions will take place March 21, 2020, where candidates’ delegates are selected. On April 25, 2020, these delegates will attend district conventions, followed by a state convention on June 13, 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party reported. Then national delegates will be chosen to attend the Democratic National Convention in July, where the nominee is officially selected.

Presidential campaigns can ask for a canvas or recount of caucus results by district or statewide if a change might affect how many delegates they send to the DNC in July. The deadline to request either is February 7, 2020 at 12 p.m., CNN reported.