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For Some Iowa Voters, Caucuses Remain A Barrier To Participation

Voters listen to instructions during a Democratic Party caucus in 2016. The party has been under pressure to make the process more accessible this year, but some activists remain frustrated.
Patrick Semansky
Voters listen to instructions during a Democratic Party caucus in 2016. The party has been under pressure to make the process more accessible this year, but some activists remain frustrated.

Marlu Abarca has lived in Iowa for a decade and says she now "identifies as an Iowan." For the past few weeks, she has been attending training sessions to chair a satellite caucus site at the South Suburban YMCA in Des Moines.

She'll have to miss work to participate.

"I have to take vacation to chair the satellite caucus," Abarca, 28, said during a lunch break from her job at a Des Moines library.

Abarca is far from the only Iowan who has to make special arrangements to participate in Monday's caucuses or who may be unable to participate at all. To caucus, voters have to show up in person at 7 p.m. CT, at a specific location. They can expect to spend some time, multiple hours even, at that location.

That tends to pose problems for a lot of voters: parents who don't have child care options; employees who work irregular schedules and can't take time off; and people with disabilities who may struggle to navigate a process that demands a lengthy amount of physical presence, often in a crowded room.

Iowa is home to more than 3 million people, of which there are about 2 million registered voters, but the most that have participated in a presidential caucus was about 240,000 for the 2008 Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In 2016, slightly more than 171,000 people turned out for the Democratic caucuses.

"I think that there are more accessible ways to involve people in the democratic process. After being in Iowa for 10 years and identifying as an Iowan, I understand why being the first in the nation and having something like a caucus feels so special to Iowans," Abarca said. "The Midwest is often left out in a lot of conversations nationally. So to get this type of attention is different ... But we have to recognize that we inherently don't have a society that's inclusive and values people's right to vote."

With an eye toward making the caucuses more accessible for all voters, the Iowa Democratic Party has ushered in some changes, including early check-in and a streamlined process for voters to sort out their support for candidates. They've also expanded "satellite caucuses."

That was the party's way of extending access for people who cannot attend one of 1,678 designated caucus sites. All told, there will be 90 satellite caucus sites this year, most of them in Iowa. About a half-dozen will be Spanish-language satellite caucus sites, including the one Abarca is chairing in Des Moines.

She has been attending meetings to learn how to run a caucus, something she has never done before, and how to translate an already confusing process from English to Spanish. One thing that she and other organizers have encountered is that the word "caucus" lacks a Spanish equivalent.

"It's similar to the term 'marketing,' where in Spanish there's no comparable word that would represent the idea of what marketing is. So the Spanish language has simply adopted the word 'márketing.' Very similarly, 'cau-kos' or just 'caucus,' " Abarca explained. "More and more Spanish speakers are becoming familiar with the term, but there's no other word."

Activists and organizers have raised concerns about language barriers and note that while there are now Spanish language satellite caucuses, the roughly 194,000 Latinos in Iowa — some, though not all, speak primarily Spanish — are scattered across the state and may need access to interpreters to understand the process.

"For the first time in a caucus cycle, we have a full-time AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] and Latinx outreach director, and accessibility outreach director to help make sure all Iowans have the resources they need to caucus, including translation services at the caucuses," said Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure in a statement that pointed out a number of other changes. "Expanding participation has been at the heart of all of these changes, and we will continue to work to look for ways to increase accessibility on caucus night."

One group, the Latinx Iowa Caucus Education Project has been working for months to get more Latinos in Iowa to participate, circulating nonpartisan videos to educate would-be participants on the process, which relies on person-to-person contact at community meetings.

The move to expand the satellite caucus program, which was piloted by the state party in 2016, came after plans stalled for the "virtual" caucus program — which would have allowed caucus participation over the phone or through video chat. The Democratic National Committee rejected that proposal last year over cybersecurity concerns. Thus, Iowans must still show up in person to participate.

"Obviously, caucusing is an activity that requires a physical presence, so there in lies the crux of the problem with regard to a few different populations of people," said Reyma McCoy McDeid, the executive director of the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living.

"When we talk about voter suppression initiatives that occur across the country, we tend to focus on one particular political party. But the fact of the matter is voter marginalization, voter suppression is a nonpartisan phenomenon, and the caucuses are, unfortunately, a fantastic example of that," she added.

The center is hosting a satellite caucus that will start two hours prior to the typical 7 p.m. start time and will include food and child care (including a caucus activity just for kids).

There will be quiet space with softer light for people in need of less sensory overload and space to lie down for those who need it. Participants are being reminded that while caucuses can be loud, passionate affairs, they should be mindful of their volume "for the sake of caucusers who experience neurodiversity, overstimulation or anxiety." An American Sign Language caucus will take place in a different room.

Emmanuel Smith is also participating in a satellite caucus, one they petitioned to hold in the lobby of their apartment building.

Smith, who works for the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa, uses a wheelchair and has chronic pain and fatigue. In 2016, it took more than an hour for them to reach their caucus site. Once they arrived, they found it was too crowded to maneuver through the crowds or even to use the restroom.

"Having a satellite location in my apartment building was one of the only ways I knew to at least give me a good chance of being able to attend," Smith said in an interview at Disability Rights Iowa's Des Moines office. "Not a guarantee, but prevent, you know, the long commutes and different issues I've encountered in previous years."

The Iowa Democratic Party has worked to ensure that disabled Iowans have a better experience than in 2016, when many said they struggled to participate. They launched an online form for people to request accommodations and have recently added disability director.

The national party has applauded these moves.

"I'm proud of the historic steps taken by the Iowa Democratic Party to increase participation and accessibility in the Iowa caucuses," DNC Disability Council chair Tony Coelho said in a statement. "These efforts include hiring a caucus accessibility director, having satellite caucuses, and requiring every caucus location to meet accessibility standards. This didn't happen overnight. This happened because of the leadership of the Iowa Democratic Party and the tireless work of disability advocates."

The staff of Disability Rights Iowa and other advocates say that satellite caucuses are just a stopgap, rather than a long-term solution.

"It's like trying to fix your basement foundation with some masking tape," said Annie Matte, voting outreach coordinator at Disability Rights Iowa.

They want to see more changes to the caucuses, including options that allow Iowans to participate without showing up in person like absentee ballots or proxy voting. Such options haven't come into play because of fears that an absentee ballot would lead the caucuses to be considered a primary election by officials in New Hampshire, who oversee the country's first primary and might try to jump ahead in the nominating process.

"There's 300,000 Iowans with disabilities of voting age, so this is a big group of people," Jane Hudson, the executive director of Disability Rights Iowa. "If they don't have a voice because they can't even participate in the first stage of picking presidents, they are really being disenfranchised."

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.