The Slatest

Why Are Iowans Caucusing in Paris (and Brooklyn and Tucson and Tbilisi)?

A man sweeps or carries a broom in a union hall. A banner reads "UFCW Local 230, Ottumwa, Iowa."
The Ottumwa, Iowa, satellite precinct caucus at a union hall was the first satellite location to hold its caucus, which kicked off at noon on Monday.
Olivia Sun/Des Moines Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Monday’s Iowa caucuses will for the first time include a number of satellite caucuses around the state, the country, and in three locations abroad: Paris; Glasgow, Scotland; and Tbilisi, Georgia.

In previous years, Iowans have had to be physically present at their local precincts at 7 p.m. to be able to vote. This year, the state party is running more than 90 satellite caucuses. The majority of those are in-state, at locations like nursing homes, college campuses, and work sites, to improve accessibility. The Iowa caucuses have long been criticized for creating onerous conditions that dampen turnout and discourage people with limited mobility from participating. Some of the in-state satellite caucuses are also scheduled for different times to help shift workers and parents with young children. Others are held in languages other than English.

The couple dozen out-of-state satellite caucuses serve a different need: that of the absentee ballot. Last year, the party decided that virtual caucusing would not be an option for out-of-state residents because of security issues. Paper ballots were also eliminated because they threatened to erode Iowa’s claim to having a caucus system at all, which would in turn threaten its privileged first-in-the-nation spot. Out of that process of elimination, the satellite caucus was born.

Paris, Glasgow, and Tbilisi seem like three random locations for caucuses outside the U.S., though, given that only one is a major international hub, and the three don’t offer a great geographic spread. Why these three locations?

It’s not because the state Democratic party made a strategic decision. Those three locations just happened to have Iowans who were particularly passionate about electoral participation.

The state Democratic party opened up applications for satellite caucuses in October, and nearly 200 applications came in. Applicants had to send in information about their chosen venue, with details about seating, Wi-Fi, accessibility, and other logistical issues. Ultimately, the party’s special satellite-caucus review committee approved most of them.

According to the Associated Press, nearly 1,300 such Iowans are expected to caucus out of state. A very small number of those will be international. The AP reported that nine people are expected to participate in Glasgow (held in one graduate student’s flat), three of whom will travel from England. Just three people plan to attend in Tbilisi, at the home of one eager expat who, with a friend, found one other Iowan in the area to participate. The Paris caucus, hosted at another home, expects to attract closer to 30 people.

The same rules that govern the caucus process in Iowa apply to the international locations. Each candidate will need 15 percent of the room in order to be viable (so, with the Tbilisi caucus, any caucusgoer’s preferred candidate would be automatically viable). After two rounds, they will submit their results to the party. The outcome of each out-of-state and international caucus will be grouped with the others, creating a single non-Iowa “county.”