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The Iowa Caucus: an exercise in privilege

The Iowa caucus is a beloved statewide institution and for good reason. I remember my first caucus at 17. I was wildly excited, passionate, and eager to present myself as a thoughtful political junkie wise beyond his years. I gleefully joined in the good-natured ribbing and cajoling central to the caucus process. It was exciting, and I felt privy to a unique expression of our state’s sense of community, history, and folksy charm. At its best, it was like a snapshot from a simpler time. Rockwellian Democracy in practice. The caucus is a charming part of our state’s legacy, and once every few years, it places our state in a position of national prominence any state would envy. The Iowa caucuses are special and they are also inexcusably, fundamentally wrong.

As they currently exist, the Iowa caucus is an exercise in privilege. They are inaccessible to the working single mother, and the low income college student holding down two jobs. The caucus is inaccessible to the time poor, those without transportation, the elderly and the disabled. Often marginalized people need the protections and support of the government the most. They are the voices heard little and valued less. Even excluding the attendance requirements, the caucuses are crowded, loud, rowdy setups which preclude participation for many on the spectrum, or whose mental illnesses make public engagement an emotionally draining activity. Breakout groups established to discuss candidates or platforms make planning with microphones for those with hearing disabilities nearly impossible. Extensive documentation that can’t be accessed by adaptive technology often utilized by those with visual disabilities or platform procedures that fail to take any disabled population fully into account make the process even more inaccessible. A bloated, bureaucratic tangle of needlessly complex systems discourages participation and prevents clarity. The issues go on and on. Beneath the folksy image is a broken system that actively excludes huge populations within our state. The caucus and its faults persist and they are for me personally hurtful.

I have the hips of an aging Golden Retriever, and arthritis that would make an octogenarian wince. Yet I am expected to roll the dice, and hope my chronic pain issues align with a caucus schedule. Should my disability prevent my attendance, then it is simply written off as a price of the caucus system. I do not accept that. In February, the dice didn’t roll my way. I was unable to attend the Iowa caucuses. The nature of my transportation and the limitations of my disability made physical attendance impossible. It did not matter that I am deeply passionate about politics, or that I was eager to support my chosen candidate. My physical attendance was compulsory, and that prerequisite excluded me from my political party, and from having a political voice.

This is the 21st century. I can play video games with a friend in Beijing, order shoes, and watch an entire season of Stranger Things without moving an inch. We have all the means in the world to create an accessible system. Yet we do not. In fact, we barely have begun to flirt with remote caucus options that, even if adopted, would only scratch the surface of these issues. Why? Because Iowa is first in the nation. That affords leaders in both major parties a unique position of power, made kingmakers on the national scale. Relevant only as long as our place is maintained, and our caucus unchanged so as not to lose our place. Revealing that state parties are all too willing to accept the disenfranchisement of Iowan’s with disabilities, individuals with mental illness, the elderly and working poor for the sake of preserving familiar structures of power. Values of inclusivity and true democracy are giving way to the allure of nepotism and prestige.

Traditions that discriminate against large, marginalized populations are never quaint and they are not a point of pride. They are shameful and merit change. Last month, I was denied the right to vote in my chosen party’s future because I am a person with a disability. This state’s political parties had the means to facilitate inclusive participation policies, and elected instead to preserve the status quo. For this and a hundred other reasons, the caucus must end and in its place, a multi-day, remote and inclusive system of participation must be created. Because by preserving our spot as first in the nation through the active exclusion of thousands, we prove ourselves unworthy of the privilege. We must change and should that mean the loss of relevance for those who willingly silence the marginalized, I say all the better.

A yellow sign with bathroom, directional, and mobility symbols on it

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