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Like jury duty? You'll love caucuses

By JOEL STEIN


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It takes a razor-sharp voter to figure out Iowa's system

If you think we're going to get a democracy up and running in Iraq by midsummer, maybe you should know that it takes two hours to teach Iowans how to vote in their own caucus. And these are Iowans who have been to caucuses before.

Admittedly, the Iowa caucus is the most painstaking, complicated form of democracy to exist outside a campus women's collective. Instead of walking into a voting booth, pulling the top lever for President and randomly yanking the rest of them like you're supposed to, the caucus is a three-hour Monday-night political dorkfest reserved for the kinds of people who get psyched about jury duty. In 2000, only 61,000 Iowans showed up to vote, and it's not as if there's a lot to do in Iowa in January.

To explain how it all works, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver is going around the state holding practice caucuses. At his workshop last Tuesday at the library in Clive, a suburb seven miles west of Des Moines, about 50 people showed up, several of them young enough to be my parents. Most of these folks already knew how caucuses work and just wanted a refresher course. Clive needs to get itself a bowling alley.

As Culver, 37, a former history teacher, began with an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on the history of the caucus going back to 1846, a sign-language interpreter flashed signs even though not a single person in the room was deaf.

It hit me about 15 minutes into the speech that the sign-language guy must have realized no one there was deaf, but by that time it was too embarrassing to just stop. So he kept going, his bravery a further testimony to the lengths Iowans go through just to get David Broder to visit.

For the second hour, Culver had the audience stage a fake caucus. It turns out the Republican caucus is really simple. They pass around ballots, count them and go home to watch Everybody Loves Raymond while the Democrats are still reading their rules. I predict the state will eventually be 100% Republican.

When the caucus begins at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, the first thing everyone in both parties will do is vote on a committee chair. Then caucusgoers will debate and vote on issues they'd like to see on the party's platform at the convention.

Finally, the people at the Democratic caucus make speeches for all the Democratic candidates, including Undecided. Undecided, by the way, has taken the Democratic Iowa caucus several times, as in 1972 and 1976. If Confused were a candidate, it would win even more often.

After the speeches, everyone then votes by walking to the section of the room designated for his or her candidate. Any group with less than 15% of the attendees is considered nonviable and has to disband.

Then the realignment period begins, in which everyone walks around and tries to persuade the disbanded people, and anyone else, to join them. The classic way to do that is to bribe them by making them delegates to the convention. That's like a trip to Vegas to these people.

Once all the candidates have at least 15%, a formula Culver describes as "needing a Ph.D. in math to understand" is used to determine how many delegates each candidate gets. The percentage of delegates each candidate gets is the number reported in the media. Then the media, for reasons that are unclear, pretend that has something to do with whom the country wants to be President.

To give us a taste of how exciting this can be in action, Culver had the audience vote on their favorite pets. Debra Salowitz, who gave the pro-cat speech right before the woman in the Christmas sweater gave the bird speech, combatively announced, "If you have a bird problem, cats can take care of that." This was the point when the sign-language guy finally gave up.

Next, everyone walked to corners of the room to back their favorite pets. The cat and fish people had less than 15% of the vote, thus sending everyone into the exciting realignment period.

During this time, the bird supporters grabbed the cookie tray a staple of Iowa caucus sites and approached the Undecideds, who accused them of bribery. The Christmas-sweater woman's main tactic was to stand near the Undecideds and loudly chant "Birds! Birds! Birds!" A staunch dog supporter grabbed Culver's microphone to talk about how his dog had once been at the Governor's mansion.

Each candidate was awarded a number of delegates corresponding to the percentage of people standing in its corner. Out of the seven allotted in this fake precinct obsessed with pet hierarchy, four went to the dogs, three went to Uncommitted, and none went to the birds since so many of them got confused during realignment that they strayed from their corner. While much was learned about how caucuses work, more was learned about the intelligence of people who own birds.

The caucus seems as if it were constructed to keep away everyone but hard-core party activists and the pitifully lonely, but it can actually lead to an informed decision. And while three hours seems like a lot to give up for democracy, it's shorter than that last Lord of the Rings movie.

The lack of a secret ballot does make some people nervous, but having to declare your political opinion in public probably keeps people from voting for things they should be ashamed of, such as liking cats. Plus there's something nice about getting together with your neighbors to eat cookies and talk about politics. Once every four years seems about right for that.



Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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