Caucuses in the Caucasus

Caucuses in the Caucasus

Why I’ll be voting in the Iowa caucuses from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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Tbilisi, GeorgiaThe first votes of the Iowa caucuses will be cast in my apartment in Georgia—the country. As an American living abroad, I vote absentee whenever possible. But as an Iowan, at caucus time—when Iowans’ votes carry the most weight—I have generally been relegated to spectatorship: In the past, if you couldn’t physically show up at that church hall or community center at 7 on a specific night, you were out of luck.

Like most Iowans who have left, I’m nostalgic for home. And one of the many things I love, even when it disenfranchises me, is our archaic voting system. I have caucused only once, in 2008, when the caucuses were held on January 3, early enough that I could extend my Christmas visit. My precinct’s caucus was in the gym of my junior high school on Des Moines’s south side, and among the participants were old classmates, friends’ parents, and my family’s neighbors. That night, for the first time, we discussed our vision for the country and what candidates we were supporting and why. The ballot wasn’t secret—we had to announce in view of our neighbors whom we were for—but the trade-off was that it allowed us to talk about politics face to face.

When I learned this year that Iowans outside the state could volunteer to hold “satellite caucuses,” I leapt at the chance, eager to recreate a tiny bit of Iowa halfway around the world.

I filled out the application, assuming that I would be one of dozens or hundreds of Iowans around the world doing the same. But when the list of approved sites was released, I was shocked to see that Tbilisi was one of only three outside the United States. (The others are in Paris, France; and Glasgow, Scotland.)

Iowans have no particular connection to Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic of 4 million south of Russia and east of Turkey, or to the region in general (known, as it happens, as the Caucasus). I have one other Iowan friend here in Tbilisi, and when our site was approved, we set about trying to find other Iowans to take part. We posted in the expat Facebook groups and contacted the US Embassy and Peace Corps here to see if they had any Iowans. In the end, we found… one.

So on February 3 the three of us will meet in my apartment. I did two precinct chair trainings—one online and one on a conference call—but with three people, it’s pretty simple. Each of us will represent 33 percent of the caucus, meaning each of our respective candidates will easily clear the 15 percent viability barrier. For the first time this year, caucus participants (both satellite and traditional) will write their votes down. But on caucus night itself, I’ll call our results in to Iowa. From there, our votes will enter a pool of “state delegate equivalents” that will ultimately decide the Iowa results.

Tbilisi is 10 time zones ahead of Des Moines, meaning our caucus is going to be at 9 am Central Time. That makes it the first of all the 99 satellite caucuses, kind of the Dixville Notch of Iowa. Presumably, if the satellite caucuses catch on, expat Iowans further east will hold events in 2024, meaning this will likely be Tbilisi’s last chance at that distinction.

There is a growing movement, though, to get rid of the caucuses altogether. The argument is that Iowa is too racially homogeneous to cast such a critical early vote and that caucusing—requiring two hours of a voter’s time at a prescribed place and hour—makes it inaccessible for too many people. You hear arguments, too, that giving so much weight to a farm state leads to bad policies, like ethanol subsidies.

They are valid points. I visited Iowa in December, and while I was there, I tried to see as many campaign events as I could. One of the beauties of the Iowa caucuses is that voters get an incomparable opportunity to see the candidates up close. Iowans take this privilege seriously, but it was impossible not to notice that the crowds at these events were overwhelmingly white and—with some exceptions—dominated by older, wealthier people.

The most compelling campaign event I went to was a town hall meeting with Julián Castro. A month before, Castro had said the unsayable for a caucus candidate: that Iowa shouldn’t play such an important role in electing the president. He had organized the town hall to further explain himself.

The crowd, naturally, disagreed with Castro, and one after another respectfully and eloquently parried his arguments. When Ako Abdul-Samad, a member of Iowa’s House of Representatives, spoke about the state’s long history of pioneering racial justice and progressive policies, you could feel the Iowa pride swelling in the room. I was there with my mother, and she told me on the way out, “That event is exactly why Iowa should have the caucuses.” I had felt the same.

Iowans are well-aware that they don’t represent all of the United States. In the campaign events I visited, the surest applause line for these pasty-white audiences was for a candidate to promise to tackle racial disparities in the criminal justice system. (Incidentally, I never heard a word about ethanol.)

The most difficult argument to rebut, though, is about the caucuses’ unwieldy format. Amid a growing movement toward making it easier to vote, like allowing ballots to be cast by mail ahead of election day, the caucuses and their onerous attendance requirements seem an indefensible vestige of the past. And the non-secret ballot? At the town hall, Castro argued that members of marginalized groups might find it difficult to express their political preferences in person among their neighbors.

Castro’s right. Still, what do we lose by getting rid of that tight community connection in favor of a safer but more atomized, anonymous process? Can’t we work instead to make these marginalized groups more comfortable with being visible in their neighborhoods?

The satellite caucuses are part of a broader effort to expand the caucuses’ accessibility; many of them are in retirement homes or in union halls for workers on the evening shift. Some target marginalized groups: There are satellite caucuses in community centers for Iowa’s Muslims and immigrants from Bosnia and South Sudan.

I don’t know if this will be enough to save the caucuses, or even if the caucuses should be saved. But I will be proud to represent Iowa so far from home and carry on our beloved caucus tradition as long as it lasts.

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