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From Paris to Arizona, Iowans will caucus around the globe

Posted at 3:35 PM, Feb 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-01 16:35:08-05

SAN TAN VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — For Iowans, going to college out of state, studying abroad or wintering in Arizona used to mean giving up quite a bit of power in picking presidents.

But this year, the Iowa caucuses won’t all be in Iowa. Nearly 1,300 Democrats temporarily away from home will still attend the crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses from Paris or Palm Springs or dozens of places in between.

It’s the first time the Iowa Democratic Party is holding “satellite caucuses” in far-flung locales to allow more people to participate in a process often derided as opaque and exclusionary. Their votes will be added to the complex formula for divvying delegates among the Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination to take on President Donald Trump.

“It’s nice to have that specific influence that you get for being an Iowa resident and being the first to vote” despite being so far away, said Colyn Burbank, who expects about nine people to participate in a caucus he’s hosting at his flat in Glasgow, Scotland. “It’s a very special thing that Iowa has.”

Burbank, 31, from Des Moines, is supporting Bernie Sanders along with several of his friends from Central College in Pella, Iowa, who are now studying or working in Scotland. At least three other Iowa Democrats living in England plan to make the trip to Glasgow as well, he said.

“I know it’s something that matters and a lot of Iowans take it really seriously, myself included. I’m excited,” added his friend, Taylor VanderWell, a 29-year-old from Des Moines who is living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and working at a software firm.

The Iowa caucuses are the subject of quadrennial criticism for asking so much of their participants, who traditionally must show up to their neighborhood meeting and publicly support their chosen candidate at precisely 7 p.m. on a Monday.

That inevitably limits participation. People who are working, traveling, attending college or escaping a frigid winter are out of luck. The elderly, people with disabilities and others who have mobility challenges can struggle in snowy or icy weather, and it can be intimidating for those with limited English skills.

The satellite caucuses are Iowa’s effort to be more inclusive. They’re a fallback option after the Democratic National Committee, citing security concerns, rejected a proposal by Iowa and Nevada to hold virtual caucuses in which people could participate by phone. Nevada’s caucuses are all in the state.

“We believe our party is stronger when more voices are being heard, and that’s what this process is doing,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price.

Lifelong Democratic activist Joan Koenigs has been attending caucuses since before they were instrumental in presidential nominations, but she had to let it go when she and her husband started spending winters in Arizona.

She jumped at the chance to organize a caucus in the backyard of her home in San Tan Valley for what she thought would be some two dozen Iowans living nearby on the outskirts of metro Phoenix. There are enough Iowans in the neighborhood that they gather for a party at the clubhouse every winter.

The Koenigses’ caucus, the closest to the Phoenix area, proved so popular she had to scramble to secure a room at the nearby movie theater large enough to house the more than 180 people who registered.

“I’m really quite passionate about participation in government, so I feel it’s our duty to do this, and I’m thrilled,” said Koenigs, a retired farmer and nurse who lives in St. Ansgar in northern Iowa.

Koenigs said she’ll back Pete Buttigieg, who impressed her during a campaign event in Iowa last fall.

There are three other caucuses in Arizona, all of them in the Tucson area.

Iowa Democrats experimented with four satellite sites in the 2016 election, when about 150 people caucused at three large state government work sites and a nursing home in Iowa City — more convenient places than their assigned neighborhood meeting.

This year, satellite caucuses will be held in Iowa at assisted living centers, work sites and college campuses. Some also will be conducted in foreign languages. Others will take place earlier in the day.

Sites outside Iowa include college campuses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island; libraries in Arizona, California and New York; churches in Illinois and Florida; a community center in Tennessee; and a hotel in Washington, D.C.

Altogether, there will be 92 satellite caucuses around the world, including 65 in Iowa and 24 spread across 13 states and the District of Columbia. Three international caucuses will be held in Glasgow, Paris and Tbilisi, Georgia.

All caucuses are open only to Democrats registered to vote in Iowa. Out-of-state participants and those attending early in-state caucuses had to apply ahead of time so their registration could be verified. Organizers were given virtual training on how to run a caucus. The 1,288 people who have registered make up a sliver of those who will caucus on Feb. 3. About 171,000 Iowa Democrats caucused in 2016 and 240,000 in 2008.

Being away from home means Iowans miss out on some of the one-on-one interactions with candidates holding intimate gatherings at small-town parks and pizza parlors.

But Austin Allaire of Huxley, a 23-year-old graduate student in London, said he’s keeping close tabs on the race by listening to podcasts on the Underground. Still, it stings a bit when his mom sends pictures of candidates stopping near Iowa State University, where she’s a professor.

“I always feel jealous of the front-row seat she’s having,” said Allaire, who plans to caucus for Buttigieg in Paris, the closest caucus to London.