WASHINGTON - Next week's Iowa caucuses are coming to Tbilisi, the capital of the country of Georgia.
For the first time, Iowa's Democratic Party designated Tbilisi as well as Paris, France, and Glasgow, Scotland, as international satellite caucus sites, along with 96 new voting locations in the state and across the U.S. where Iowa Democrats can register who they want as their party's presidential nominee.
Expanding these voting sites will “make these caucuses the most accessible” in the party’s history, said Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party Chairman.
The Iowa caucuses, set for Feb. 3, will kick off the 2020 U.S. presidential primary season, to be followed within days by the New Hampshire primary. Democratic candidates are competing to become the party's standard-bearer and face off against the Republican Party's presumed presidential nominee, President Donald Trump, in November.
Unlike a presidential primary where voters merely cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice, the more time consuming caucus process requires voters to cluster together in support of candidate. Participants may try to persuade wavering voters to join their side — or even attempt to talk voters into switch allegiance.
“What makes a caucus distinctive, of course, is that people are literally voting with their feet,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at the Iowa State University.
The Tbilisi site will be hosted by Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist living in Georgia. Kucera, who is from Des Moines, told The New York Times, “there’s no specific reasons for an Iowan to be here.” So far, he said, only two other Iowa expats have registered for the Tbilisi caucus. As to why Kucera wants to host a caucus, he said “I’m a proud Iowan, nostalgic for Iowa and I like doing Iowan things.”
Kucera told VOA in an email he plans to write about his experience hosting the caucus in Tbilisi for another news organization.
The other international sites will be at a university in Paris and at the home of a graduate student studying in Glasgow.
The 99 Iowa caucuses satellite locations were designated by the Democratic Party following an extensive application process. Organizations and individuals interested in hosting a caucus had to estimate the potential number of Iowa participants in these areas.
While the Democratic Party has expanded access, it has limited the potential impact of the satellite caucuses, ruling that no more than 10% of delegates will be selected based on the outcomes from these sites.
But political analysts will be looking to see if the expanded caucus sites significantly increase participation among more diverse populations and what new voter patterns may emerge.
“I'm going to definitely be watching to see if these folks who are participating in the satellite caucuses had a different outcome than those who went to the traditional caucuses,” said Kedrowski, with Iowa State University’s Catt Center for Women and Politics.
The Republican Party of Iowa will also be holding caucuses on the same night but will not participate in the expanded satellite locations. President Donald Trump, who is running for second term of office, is overwhelmingly favored over two other register Republican candidates, former U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld.
The Iowa Democratic Party considered but ultimately rejected a virtual caucus option, for voters to participate over the phone or on an online platform, because of cybersecurity concerns.
This year’s expanded caucus sites and schedules, the Democratic Party hopes, will facilitate greater participation among busy parents with children, people working night shifts, students away from home and Iowans living abroad.
In the past, the downside of the time-consuming caucus process has been lower voter turnout. In the 2016 Iowa caucuses only 15.7% of the voting population participated. In contrast, more than 50% of New Hampshire voters cast ballots in the 2016 primary.
Iowa Democrats also rejected proposals to allow early voting or mailing in ballots that would blur the distinction between caucus and primary.
New Hampshire state law requires that its primary election be the first one held in the nation. By holding caucuses rather than a traditional election, Iowa's contest technically does not conflict with New Hampshire’s traditional first primary position.