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Supporters of Caucus System in US Elections Say Process Reflects True Democracy at Work - 2004-01-20

The Iowa caucuses held on Monday produced a big win for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in the race for the Democratic party presidential nomination. Many analysts, however, say the real tests lie ahead in upcoming state primaries. Some even deride the caucuses as an anachronism that counts for little in the electoral process. But, in this Reporters Notebook filed from Des Moines, VOA's Greg Flakus describes the democratic process he witnessed there.

The caucus system would not work well in a large state and, some would argue that it would not work well anywhere but Iowa. Critics say it is not representative of most voters because only a small fraction of them take part in the process. But those who do, experience something very close to the kind of democracy that the ancient Greeks experienced when they first came up with the idea.

At the school in West Des Moines where I went to witness the caucus process, there was a record turnout for the 115th precinct event. In fact, statewide the turnout was about double what it was four years ago. Neighbors and friends gathered together all over the state to discuss the issues and make their candidate preferences known.

"To me, democracy has always been neighbors and fellow citizens getting together face-to-face to talk about it," said Des Moines resident Doug Haney has been involved in the caucus process in Iowa for 20 years. "In a sense, the actual amount of commitment you have to have to come out here makes you think about it and makes you value it more."

Just before the caucus began I had a chance to speak with Iowa's Lieutenant Governor, Sally Pederson, who also hailed the participatory nature of the caucus.

"The process is not one in which you just come in and then leave, you have to be committed enough to give your evening to it. So, these are truly the real party activists," she said.

Ms. Pederson says people who attend caucuses are also driven by real concerns about the nation and the issues confronting it. As for Iowa not being very representative of the nation as a whole, she begs to differ. She told me that Iowa reflects the national political demographic in one important way, its government is seldom dominated by one party, making bi-partisanship a necessity.

"In Iowa, about a third of the population are registered Democrats, about a third are registered Republicans and about a third are independents," she said. "So whomever is elected, they ultimately are serving and representing more than the third of the people who are in their party, because it takes more than just your own party to elect you. We work in a bipartisan way in this state and I think that makes it successful and that is why many of the decisions are made are in the middle. People have to move to the middle to attract that independent vote."

Iowa has also been criticized by some national pundits as atypical because its population is mostly white, European descendants. But that is changing. Hispanics and Asians are increasing in numbers and the state's reputation for being a civil, quiet and peaceful place is drawing many more.

At the caucus I met a man from Iran who has lived here several years and is now a U.S. citizen. He came to the caucus mainly to learn about the process.

"It is my first try. It is my first time. Before I do anything, I wanted to see how the process goes and then decide which one," he said.

At the caucus I attended, I saw all the bargaining and negotiations these events are famous for. Supporters of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, for example, came just short of the number needed to be viable. They, along with the uncommitted, then bargained with the larger groups supporting Senators Kerry and Edwards and most ended up joining one of those groups.

In the end, Senator Edwards won five of the delegates from the 115th precinct and Senator Kerry won four. These results went into the final state count. Eventually, this will lead to a statewide selection of delegates to go to the Democratic convention in Boston in July. By then, the cold winter night of caucusing in Iowa will be but a distant memory, but Iowans will remain proud that it all started here.