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Opinion: What's the Matter with Iowa? Mucho!

The Iowa caucus is an archaic political vestige that has no place in influencing our Presidential politics as it does, argues political scientist Victoria DeFrancesco Soto.
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AUSTIN, Texas -- First things first: I have nothing against Iowans. The couple of Iowans I have met have all been lovely. It's the role of Iowa in national politics that infuriates me. By holding the first electoral contest, Iowa distorts our democratic system and squashes the voice of minority electorates.

The first thing that is the matter with Iowa is its lack of racial and ethnic representation that reflects the nation. Saying that Iowa is no microcosm of the United States is an overstatement.

Iowa is one of the whitest states in the nation at 92 percent compared to the national white non-Hispanic population of 77 percent. Overall, the U.S. Latino population accounts for 17 percent, but in Iowa they make up less than a third, at 5 percent. African Americans and Asian Americans who nationally make up 13 percent and 5 percent of the population are only 3 percent and 2 percent of the state's residents.

Add to these demographic distortions the overrepresentation of rural areas. Slightly over 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban areas; in Iowa, over one-third of the population is rural. This matters because the concrete policy concerns of urban and rural populations are different.

If there were some profound theoretical rationale for why Iowa should go first then maybe I could be persuaded to overlook the state’s complete lack of demographic representation. But there is no reason other than historical accident.

The short explanation of why Iowa goes first has to do with the electoral reforms of the McGovern-Frasier Commission from 1972. (For an excellent history of the Iowa caucus see this report by Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School).

The Iowa caucus is an archaic political vestige that has no place in influencing our presidential politics as it does.

Herein lies the second major problem with Iowa, the caucuses. Caucuses are not like elections where a registered voter shows up at their polling place or mails in their ballot indicating their preferred candidate. A caucus requires individuals to show up at local precinct meeting place where there is public discussion about the candidates and then the selection process begins. This process takes hours and on the Democratic side, it's especially complex (see Vox for one of the best explanations of the ins and outs of the caucus system).

Caucuses are time-consuming enterprises that most folks don’t take part in. In 2008, the year with the highest participation on record, 16.3 percent of eligible voters took part in the caucuses. Of the 350,000 people who caucused in 2008, 1 percent was Latino. Only 7 percent of eligible Latino voters caucused in Iowa.

Caucuses disadvantage people who do not have the luxury of time, namely poorer folks or single parents. And because of the public debate and discourse component, individuals who may be only proficient in English, and not fluent, are also at a disadvantage. Caucuses also hurt first-time voters and younger voters. To someone who has never cast a vote before, the idea of jumping into the deep end of the pool by caucusing is intimidating.

In Iowa, like in the rest of the country, Latinos are disproportionately poorer, younger and likely to be first- time voters. Adding insult to injury, both the Democratic and Republican parties give little to any attention to Iowa Latinos.

The Latino political voice in Iowa is minimized while the non-minority Iowa voice is disproportionately magnified.

The Iowa caucus is an archaic political vestige that has no place in influencing our presidential politics as it does. It disenfranchises those that are already most likely to be disenfranchised. This is not how democracy is supposed to work, and that’s what’s the matter with Iowa.

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