Jessica Anderson showed up to a high school gymnasium in her hometown of Titonka, Iowa — population 476 — in 2016 to caucus for Bernie Sanders. She was only 17 but would turn 18 before the general election and thus was eligible, but she was turned away because of confusion over the rules.
During this year’s caucuses, Anderson, a junior biology major at the University of Pennsylvania, will be 1,100 miles away and can’t skip classes to fly home. So she’s bringing the caucus to campus.
Anderson applied to the Iowa Democratic Party to hold a satellite Iowa caucus on Penn’s campus for registered Iowa Democrats living in the area. She was approved last week.
“Being from Iowa, I always think how cool it is that we have this opportunity to interact with candidates interpersonally and to also have this thing called a caucus,” Anderson said. “Then I realized a satellite caucus was possible and I thought, ‘Philadelphia’s a college town, maybe other Iowa students at Temple or Drexel have the same idea?’”
The satellite caucus Feb. 3 in Houston Hall is the lone such meeting in Pennsylvania on a list that includes remote gatherings of Iowans living in Scotland, France, the former Republic of Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Tennessee. This is the first year the state party will hold out-of-state satellite caucuses, part of an effort to include more people in the process.
The Iowa caucuses go back to the founding of the state and for decades served as biennial meetings of party organizations. Once they became part of the presidential nominating process, they blew up.
“Because of the weight presidential caucuses have come to bear, there’s been pressure from the DNC to try to increase the opportunity for participation,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, in Des Moines, said of the Democratic National Committee.
“When you look at how they work, it’s on a Monday night at 7 p.m. You gotta hope there’s no flat tire, no blizzard, you’re not sick, the babysitter shows up, and you’re in town — you’re in the state,” he said. “You can see how that limits who can actually show up.”
The state doesn’t have absentee or mail-in voting during caucuses, so people have to physically get to a designated site and stay there for as long as deliberations take. Iowa is a big state, and sometimes caucus sites are a hike for the elderly, people who are ill or disabled, or residents working such jobs as emergency response.
There are 1,678 precincts with caucuses in Iowa. This year, the state Democratic Party approved 99 satellite caucus sites within Iowa’s borders, including several in remote areas, nursing homes, or firehouses. Twenty-two out-of-state satellite caucuses were approved.
Several of the out-of-state caucuses are at universities, said Mandy McClure, director of communications for the Iowa State Democratic Party. “It’s a lot of students and snowbirds,” she said.
McClure wouldn’t speculate on how much of an increase in turnout the satellites might create but said she’d know better after the Jan. 17 registration deadline.
Despite all the attention paid to Iowa, only about one in five registered voters caucuses. That number was closer to two in five when former President Barack Obama ran in 2008. A little more than one-third of the state’s voters are registered “no party” and the rest are split between Republicans and Democrats. But a caucus-goer can change registration on caucus day, so those numbers fluctuate.
Just like precinct-level caucuses in Iowa, each satellite caucus will have a trained captain to supervise the room and report the results. The number of delegates awarded depends on the number of attendees. All out-of-state satellite caucus results are pooled and aren’t weighted as heavily as those in-state for the purpose of choosing delegates to the state convention, which allocates the delegates for the national convention.
Anderson will be trained by a member of the Iowa Democratic Committee to run the satellite site at Penn.
In order to get the caucus approved, she worked with the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns, which shared names of voters who attended events in Pennsylvania but were registered in Iowa.
Then Anderson had to apply to the Iowa Democratic Party, providing evidence that at least 10 people likely would show up and that the location passed building code requirements. Anderson estimates that 50 students from Iowa attend local universities and thinks half might come. There’s no requirement that an Iowa Democrat live in Philadelphia or even Pennsylvania to caucus at Penn. They just need to register online by Jan. 17 for the location.
Anderson plans to caucus for Andrew Yang. She met him two years ago at the North Iowa Wing Ding, a fund-raiser for county Democratic parties, and was inspired by his ideas about innovation.
“I just was blown away by how sincere, blunt, and thoughtful he was about the issues,” Anderson said. “And I know he’s kind of this outsider, black sheep, but I loved how he had this really genuine understanding of what’s going on.”
On the day of the caucus, she’ll try to convince those in the room to join her in supporting Yang. Caucus-goers representing other Democrats also will make pitches. If Yang doesn’t do well enough in the first voting round, Anderson will have to think about shifting her support to another candidate. She’s torn between Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as her second choice.
Growing up in rural northern Iowa, Anderson said, she hadn’t even heard of the University of Pennsylvania until she started looking at schools. She’s grown to love Philadelphia but misses home, particularly in the heat of the political season.
As she’s told friends and classmates about her plans for the caucus, she’s faced some backlash over Iowa’s outsized influence, given that it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the nation. The electorate in Iowa is 91% white and 3% black, according to census figures, while the national Democratic Party electorate four years ago was 66% white and 20% black. Anderson said she understands the criticism but wants to be involved, especially in case the process changes or she settles elsewhere after graduating.
“A lot of people have been telling me, ‘Iowa shouldn’t be first. That’s not fair. You’re not an accurate representation of the United States.’” Anderson said. “I think that only incentivized me more to want to vote in Iowa because I want to represent my state’s interest and I want to be of use to my state for a little while longer.”