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Iowa caucuses Q&A

/ Source: staff and news service reports

When do the caucuses begin?
The Iowa Democratic Party precinct caucuses start at 6:30 p.m. CT  (7:30 ET) Monday, with voting expected to begin about a half-hour later.

Why are they important?
The caucuses provide the first major election year test of voter sentiment for candidates seeking their party’s 2004 presidential nomination.

Who is eligible to vote?
Iowa has nearly 3 million residents, of which 1.9 million are registered voters. Any registered voter regardless of past or present party affiliation or lack of it is eligible. Those who are 17 and will be of voting age, 18, by the time of the November general election may also participate.

How many are expected to show up at the Democratic caucuses?
There are more than 532,000 registered Democrats in the state. During the less competitive caucuses of 2000, about 61,000 participated.

What happens at a caucus?
The caucuses are a party grass-roots organizing mechanism held at about 2,000 places across the state, typically schools, churches and fire stations where people would ordinarily vote in elections. During the meeting, participants cast votes for one or more delegates who will go on to county conventions later to begin the process of selecting delegates to next summer’s presidential nominating convention. In most precincts, candidates will need to draw 15 percent of the caucus-goers or forfeit all of their support. Those supporters will then be free to switch to another candidate. Eventually votes are taken and tallies are made and reported as numbers reflecting the delegate strength, and thus popularity, of candidates whose names were in play at the caucuses.

Does everyone get delegates?
No. It is possible some of the less popular candidates could get no delegates and thus no numbers at all.

Who's in the race?
Six of the eight Democrats seeking the nomination are entered in Iowa — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts; Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

When will we know what happened?
The selection of candidates begins about 7 p.m. CT (8 ET), with returns expected to begin coming in to caucus headquarters not long after 8 p.m. CT (9 ET) but could continue through the evening. The result is expected to be clear by around 10 p.m. CT (11 ET). Check, and watch NBC News and MSNBC Cable throughout the evening for updates.