DES MOINES, Iowa—It’s a supreme irony that in the United States, we kick off our presidential election season with an undemocratic process that essentially disenfranchises large segments of the voting public. The Iowa caucuses—which take place Monday night and require voters to spend several hours at a specific location to publicly choose a candidate with their fellow caucus goers—are, as many critics have put it, a de facto form of voter suppression. There’s a reason that in 2016, only 16 percent of Iowa’s voters took part in a caucus.
For instance: Have a baby at home? Good luck finding childcare so you can go attend your caucus. As Lyz Lenz recently observed, “100 years after the 19th Amendment was passed, Iowa’s mothers are still effectively disenfranchised from caucusing.” But it’s not just parents with young children at home who have to surmount barriers in order to participate in a caucus. The process can exclude everyone from people who work in the evenings—who often tend to be people in retail jobs or other low-wage work—to people who can’t afford childcare, to people with disabilities, who may show up at a site only to find out it’s not accessible.
“Truly, caucusing is ‘Iowa Nice’ voter suppression,” Reyma McCoy McDeid, the Executive Director of Central Iowa Center for Independent Living and a long-time disability rights advocate, told Jezebel. While the Iowa Democratic Party has taken belated steps to make the caucuses more accessible, McCoy McDeid believes those efforts are insufficient, pointing to the party’s wait in hiring a staffer devoted to accessibility until days before the caucuses are to take place. One voter, she noted, who submitted an accommodation request for transportation to his caucus site as well as his need for a chair to sit in, was merely told to bring a “tailgating” chair with him. “I’d argue that, even with the future of the caucuses in question, the parties are still choosing to not take accessibility seriously,” she said.
Jezebel spoke with a number of Iowa Democratic voters who either want to caucus but can’t, or have had to scramble to make plans in order to participate. As Harleigh Boldridge, a health care organizer who requested a disability accommodation, put it, the caucuses are “designed for wealthy people who can afford child care or can take time off.”
“Accessibility isn’t just a disability issue, it’s also a person of color issue,” she said. “It affects anyone who doesn’t fit what the Iowa Democratic Party currently values as its voters.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
We had to make a decision between my husband or me going to the caucus. I’m going to go caucus, after working a 10-hour day. This is because of a major loss in hours of care for our adult daughter with disabilities due to privatization of Medicaid in Iowa. We have no one to care for her on Monday night. We have lost 12 to 18 hours of care per week for our daughter—this in the last few years since the Republican governor approved privatization. Since then, I have had to cut down on my employment because our daughter is severely disabled and can’t be alone.
This is yet another example of the inaccessibilities that many families feel. My husband and I are both over 70 years old with a 50-year old, non-verbal daughter with autism and a seizure disorder. We feel like in Trump’s America we are expendable, like we don’t matter. We are lucky that we are mostly healthy and can still work—for now. If Social Security and Medicare are impacted, what will it mean for our daughter—and us too?
The caucuses should be available online for everyone. I’m a clinical social worker. My clients are elderly and disabled. There is no transportation or assistance for them in participating.
The caucus process is just not fair to a large group of us. The elderly, for instance, if you aren’t able to get out. My grandmother is a good example of this. My grandfather died a couple weeks ago and she doesn’t feel she can manage getting there and back at night in the snow. That’s exclusionary for her. She could have made it if she could go in the day, if it were a primary. Anyone that’s doing shift work, like my mom who was a night nurse for a long time. She wasn’t able to caucus for several election cycles.
And in my case and my wife’s case, we’re not sure how we’re going to do it. One of us is probably going to go and the other one won’t be able to. Our daughter has cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment. She had brain trauma in the birth process. She was nine weeks premature, so she has a compromised immune system.
We just can’t take her anywhere. And we have no childcare options either—no one will take her, because her needs are too much.
I would’ve gone for Bernie like I did last time, or Elizabeth Warren. If it were a primary, it would be all day and I could go, and my wife could go. And we’d actually be able to participate. As it is, it feels like functional disenfranchisement from the process.
I’ve voted in the primaries before, but this is the first year I can caucus. I feel like the last election, a lot of young people didn’t vote, so I think now we should have a voice.
I really want to go, but I can’t because of work, and my schedule. I work in the evenings on Monday. I’m sad and disappointed.
I’m pro-choice, I believe in women’s rights, gay marriage. If I could caucus, it’d probably be Bernie. I thought it was great that he protested during the civil rights movement and against segregation in the 1960s.
I live in a rural area. The fact that we have to declare our votes publicly is a huge deterrent for many people in my area. Our turnout is typically low. I know that there are people who get pressured by neighbors or family members to vote a certain way. Being able to cast a ballot privately is more democratic.
I’m a quadriplegic, also what they call a tetraplegic. I’m a C6 incomplete, which means I have feeling everywhere, I just can’t move.
I haven’t participated in the caucuses before. I’m an Indiana native. I’ve been in Iowa since 2013. And the last one, I was still fairly new, active in politics but didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. I was a new Iowan, and wasn’t prepared.
It takes a lot of preparation to get somebody with a power wheelchair to an event. I’m familiar with the accommodation request process, but I did not do it. One of the reasons I didn’t is because I’m a firm believer that they should have had somebody with disabilities go through these areas and double check. They just should have been ready, and I am not going to take my time to fill out a piece of paper and tell them everything I am going to need, because quite honestly, it would take more paper and more time for me to put it all down, and it would just end up pissing me off even more, than just doing it. It shouldn’t be a request. It should be an automatic given. This is 2020.
I know there’s going to be some barrier I won’t be able to go through, something that’s not wide enough for a power wheelchair. It’s already something people don’t want to go through because of the humiliation. Why put yourself in a situation that’s going to be awkward?
The thing that irks me is, because so much of this is about health care, Social Security—those things apply directly to me, and to veterans who have disabilities. Those are the people that should be the biggest majority of people who are caucusing, because this political change is what affects us directly the most. It will affect able-bodied people eventually, but this affects us right now.
The request form for accessibility, it’s all drop-down menus, which if you use dictation, you probably wouldn’t be able to use. That wasn’t created with people with disabilities in mind. I had to fill one out because I have a respiratory allergy to latex, so I won’t be able to caucus if there are any balloons around. It’s not just a contact allergy, I go into anaphylaxis. And if Michele goes in with me, she won’t be safe with me until she showers.
I filled out the form because I can at least do that. I filled out the form two weeks ago. But it’s the Friday before the caucus and they still haven’t called to confirm or deny if I can go. We’re going to go and see how far we can get. This is my first caucus too. My concern is going to be, how is Michele going to be able to move around? If it’s really crowded, it’s just more people to have to worry about.
I can’t imagine how many people who use wheelchairs right now are even considering it. I think about folks who are feeling disenfranchised from the beginning and won’t even consider this as an option because there’s never been a push. It’s easy to avoid a lot of the issues we have, it just takes work. It’s a planning issue. It’s not just about people exercising their democratic right. But how are you supposed to feel like a valued part of your community when your caucus site isn’t available?
I just talked to someone who’s really excited to caucus for Elizabeth Warren but needs to rent a wheelchair and she’s nervous as hell that she won’t be able to get to her site. I think about accessibility as a person of color too. It’s designed for wealthy people who can afford child care or can take time off. Accessibility isn’t just a disability issue, it’s also a person of color issue. It affects anyone who doesn’t fit what the Iowa Democratic Party currently values as its voters.