Iowa caucus preview: how students can get involved this February

With the Iowa caucuses just days away, the WSS investigated how both eligible voters and interested students can play a role in the process.

Students+who+can+vote+in+the+November+election+will+have+the+chance+to+caucus+on+Feb.+3.

Gwen Watson

Students who can vote in the November election will have the chance to caucus on Feb. 3.

By Natalie Dunlap, Ken Wilbur, and Abby McKeone

With just three days left until Iowans will caucus for presidential nominees, the Iowa City area is abuzz with candidate rallies, media coverage and campaign events. Though only a percentage of West’s student body will be eligible to caucus on Feb. 3, every interested student can be involved in the process. Whether participating in a mock caucus, acting as a student observer or joining in the caucus itself, there is a place for everyone to speak their mind politically. Below are some of the ways that both eligible and non-eligible voters can prepare for the nation’s first primary election.

Non-eligible voters


Hawk the Vote, a student-run organization at the University of Iowa, will be holding a mock caucus event called Hawk the Caucus at the IMU Main Lounge Jan. 31. The event opens its doors at 6:30 p.m., and will include guest speakers as well as rundowns of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses, which are being held on Feb. 3.

This is the first time Hawk the Vote has held such an event, being a relatively new organization.

“This is our first event like this, we’re actually a pretty new group,” said Kevin Drahos, external relations manager for Hawk the Vote.

For Drahos, Hawk the Caucus is really meaningful because it is an experience people can rely on when participating in the Democratic process for the rest of their lives.

“We believe that it is really important for students to feel confident before going in on Monday. Studies show that the more you are involved with the civic process and the more interactions you have with things like mock caucuses, the more likely people are to turn out in the future and for the rest of their lives,” Drahos said.

Although 2020 is the maiden voyage for Hawk the Caucus, the group is expecting a few hundred attendees. Hawk the Vote has been able to grow buzz for such a novel event through both a strong presence online and on the ground in Iowa City.

“We have gained interest from a couple hundred people on our Facebook event and we’ve been doing a lot of promotional stuff in classes everyday, so we’re expecting a few hundred people to show up,” Drahos said.

As of December 2019, a gallup poll found that 40% of Americans are currently unaffiliated with either political party. Despite their distance from any political organization, Drahos underscored the importance of independents engaging in Iowa’s political practices.

“This is a great opportunity to figure out and explore the concerns you have currently [with caucusing] and that young people in general may have and have time to work out those kinks,” said Drahos. “There will be plenty of time and a lot of resources there to help you.”

Following the model of the Democratic caucus, representatives and supporters of presidential candidates will be present and available to speak with at the event. Hawk the Caucus is scheduled to finish by 9:00 p.m., but if it takes after the Democratic caucus, it will probably go late.

Eligible voters


To get a look into the Democrat and Republican caucus process, WSS spoke to caucus organizers from both parties.

John Deeth, Democrat, Caucus Organizer

As a caucus organizer for the Johnson County Democrats, what does that job title entail?

“Well, it’s kind of an informal job title but everybody seems to have upon place on me. I’ve been working on this since about [April 2019]. We started by picking the rooms. We’ve got to get locations for 57 precincts … We had much much better cooperation from both school districts and the University this time. Four years ago we weren’t able to be at West High, this year, we’re going to have three caucuses there. And then once we got the rooms mostly booked we moved on to recruiting chairs, we need people to run the precincts. There’s a lot of confusion between a precinct chair and a precinct captain. A captain is somebody who’s volunteering for campaign. A precinct temporary chair is actually the person who runs the caucus meeting itself. Then, once we got two chairs lined up we move into recruiting volunteers and into nailing down details like sound systems and signs and training and all those kinds of things … I don’t know how many hours that I put in. This is all on a volunteer base, everybody involved in this is a volunteer.”

Young people are notorious for not voting and since the caucuses have even less of a turnout than the general election, why should the people reading this, particularly the students, make going to the caucus on February 3 a priority?

“We have a great opportunity here in Iowa, as the first state. We’re going to rule some people out. We’re going to send some people forward. And, you know, Johnson County is gonna have the highest turnout in the state. People are looking to us as the direction for the whole country. There’s going to be four or five candidates who come out of Iowa. And then there’s going to be people where this is the end of the end of the road. So, that that makes your vote dozens of times more important than somebody is voting in a Super Tuesday State.”

Can you walk through what the process will look like for a first time caucus-goer?

“You want to get here a little bit early in the line by seven o’clock in order to participate. If you’re not already registered to vote that’ll be your first step, you can register to vote at the caucus. Also important, especially for students, is that you don’t have to be 18 yet, as long as you’re 18 by Nov. 3, the day of the presidential election. Then you’ll be able to register to vote and fully participate as an adult in the caucuses.”

What will people need to bring? 

“For Democrats, nothing. All you need to do is fill out the voter registration form. Now if you have an Iowa driver’s license or non-driver ID, you should bring that with you because you’ll be asked to put that number down on your voter registration form, but you don’t have to show it in order to participate and people who don’t have a non-driver ID or a driver’s license, use their social security number on that so you just basically just fill up the form and sign in what’s called the New Democrat sheet. And then you can participate.”

There’s a new rule this year that if your group has 15% of the vote, then you can leave as soon as that’s counted, correct? 

“There is a rule changes, you have to have 15% or more of the room in order to be what’s called viable, which means you’re eligible to elect delegates to a county convention. People who are in the viable groups, at the end of the alignment then they’re locked in they’re done. They could turn into voting cards, and they can go home if they want to, if they don’t want to stay for the other business. It used to be that everybody was able to move at the next step which is called realignment… If 15% are in the undecided group, then they’re viable… Let’s say, there are 500 people in your caucus, that would mean that 15% is 75 people, and those are realistic numbers for Johnson County. It’s not like the minute person number 75 walks over to your group you’re viable and you’re done. There’s multiple announcements, ‘Okay, we’ve got five minutes left of alignment etc etc.’ … So let’s say you’re in uncommitted but you don’t want to stay in uncommitted, you’ve got 80 people, their alignment is getting done you’re like, ‘Oops, I’m gonna have to make my move sooner than I wanted to otherwise uncommitted is going to be my choice.’”

What can caucus-goers do to make it easier on the people running the caucuses since you are volunteering your time?

“The biggest thing you can do if you know that you’re not registered to vote. You can fill the form out ahead of time. You can print it off the secretary of state’s website, have it all filled out. If you’re filling it on in person write legibly, because then those all go back to the auditor’s office and they have to date to enter them I actually worked at the auditor’s office. Let’s see, keep calm, understand that this is a confusing process for most people, and everybody’s really trying to help you. There’s not a master plan to hurt one side. I mean, people are going to forcefully argue for their choices, that’s good. But in the end, the important thing is everybody coming together at the end, and supporting the nominee and then hopefully defeating Donald Trump.”

Are there any other common questions you get from first time caucus-goers or tips you have for them, that they should know before February 3.

“Knowing where to go, that’s the biggest thing. There’s a website, I will vote.com … that will direct you to your democratic caucus location.”

Republicans can find their caucus location with this link. Members of either parties can find their precinct below.

Karen Fesler, Republican, Caucus organizer

What does the title caucus organizer entail for you?

“I worked with some other people on our committee on our central committee, and we located caucus sites, and then we recruited caucus leaders, and we’ve been, you know, just working on making sure that everything is set up for the night of the caucus.”

Since young people are kind of notorious for not voting as much, and the caucus has less of a turnout than the general election, why is it important for people, and particularly students, to come to the caucus? Especially the Republicans because of the incumbency of the President? 

“There are other people there and there’s going to be some discussion of issues, there will be people who will be speaking on behalf of not only the president, but some Republican candidates and I think the other thing too is … the Iowa caucus is just such an important part of our political process and I always try to encourage young people to get involved.”

Can you walk through the process of caucusing for the first time as Republican?

“They’ll come in and there will be a table set up, or they check in. If they’ve already registered some, some young people have. If they’re going to be 18 on election day in November they may register to vote at the caucus, and we do have like voter registration forms. They just get checked in, and they’re opening petitions for the various candidates for Senator Ernst and for freshmen candidates and for local candidates they always encourage everyone to sign those. And then they’ll go into where the caucus meeting room is going to be, and right about seven o’clock the caucus chair will call it to order, and they’ll begin their business. The first thing we’ll do is take a vote for the current right presidential preference pole, and anyone who’s there to speak for any of the candidates will do that and then we’ll take that vote and then when that’s  over we send the results to RPI through an app on our phone. And then after that we will elect Central Committee members and county convention delegates, and they will have a collection of the plat form plans, anybody that wants to submit something to be considered for the party platform. And then at that point well adjourn, we expect it will take just right about an hour for the Republican caucus.”

What will they need to bring? 

“If they’re kind of register for the first time they’ll need some type of identification to prove where their addresses. And it’s always a good idea to bring a pen and a piece of paper or pen and a pad or something like that, take notes if you want to. Other than that, that’s all they need, they just need to come.”

What can caucus goers do to make the process easier for the people running the caucus since you are volunteering your time to do this?

“Well, arrive on time, that’s the most important thing. The caucus will open at six o’clock. People can start coming at six and coming in and getting register.”

Are there any other common questions that you get from first time caucus-goers or other things people should be aware of before February 3?

“There may be some parking problems at some of the caucus sites but don’t worry you can just kind of deal with that. We always encourage people to carpool if you’ve got people in your neighborhood … try to come together in one car so it kind of eliminates parking issues. We get a lot of questions on the Republican side because they’ve heard so much about what the Democrats do, and we get a lot of questions about that. We just take a basic vote. We just take that vote, send it in. We don’t then do the division thing to find a viability for delegates. Our delegates are decided at the state convention.”

The rule about each group needing 15%  of attendants does not apply to the Republican caucus.

This story was originally published on West Side Story on January 31, 2020.