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At the Iowa caucuses, accessibility is democracy in action

by | Jan 13, 2024 | Blog

As the election for the next president of the United States begins in earnest, people across the country are paying attention to Iowa. The Iowa caucuses, run by the state’s Democratic and Republican parties, will help launch the country’s presidential election process on January 15th. Historically, the caucuses in Iowa have drawn outsized attention because it is the first opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on choices for the presidency.

Unlike primary elections in most other U.S. states, where registered voters go to polling places to cast ballots, Iowa’s Republican and Democratic parties host what are called “caucuses.” In past elections, the Iowa caucus has been a large community gathering to discuss and vote on the candidates.

One thing that makes the caucus system inaccessible is that both parties have different processes for how the caucus works. The process for how a caucus works can also vary at each different location. Similar to general elections and other state’s primaries, people are assigned a caucus location based on where they live and are registered to vote. This means there are a lot of caucuses happening at the same time, all around the state. In the past, at the Democratic caucus, people would move around the room and stand in different sections to show which candidate they wanted the state democratic party to support. The Republican party gathers in a community setting, just like the Democratic party. But to show their support for a candidate, they have typically offered written ballots, asked people to stand up, or asked people to raise their hands to show support. At the Republican caucuses, people can stay to watch the votes get counted for their location. The state parties then collect the data from the caucus locations and announce the winner.

Throughout their history, caucuses have been inaccessible to Iowans with disabilities. Caucuses can be held at a wide range of locations, including restaurants and private homes, which are often not physically accessible. Sometimes there aren’t chairs available for people. Additionally, the process of caucusing itself presents barriers. The caucuses do not have set end times, which can make it difficult for people with disabilities who may need to schedule transportation, or plan around medication or caregiving schedules, or for parents who may need to find childcare. The reliance on in-person attendance poses barriers for people with chronic illnesses and people in congregate living settings, as well as those who are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the caucuses tend to rely heavily on information that is communicated verbally. This set-up can result in a sensory overload for many people as well as present numerous other accessibility concerns.

The caucuses are an opportunity to showcase Iowa’s unique political traditions, but the parties have a responsibility to make sure the process is accessible. While the parties have made some improvements over the years, there is still much work to be done.

To participate in your caucus:

  • You must be 18 years old by November 5, 2024
  • You must be eligible to vote in Iowa
  • You must be registered with the party you are caucusing with (You can register in-
    person the night of the caucus if you are not registered)
  • You must live in the precinct of your caucus location
  • You must be in line at the caucus location by 7 pm
  • You must have proof of ID

The Iowa Republican Caucus will take place on January 15 at 7 p.m., and will look similar to previous years. You can find your caucus location by first finding your precinct on the Secretary of State website and then finding your precinct caucus location on the Iowa Republican Party website. While the Republican Party has not specified how to request accommodations, their website lists the following contact info for general inquiries: (515) 282 8105 or www.iowagop.org/contact. In order to vote at the caucus, people may be asked to stand, raise their hand, or write down their vote using a pen or paper – all of which can be accessibility barriers.

Iowa Democrats will notice some big changes to their caucuses this year. They will still have an in-person gathering on January 15 at 7 p.m. You can check your precinct at the Secretary of State website and find your caucus location at the Iowa Democratic Party website. However, this year, the January 15 in-person gathering will only include party business, where people can discuss how the state Democratic Party runs. The major change is that voting for the Democratic nominee for president will not take place at the in-person caucus. Instead, Iowa democrats will participate in the caucus by mail-in voting. People can request the ballot on the Iowa Democratic Party website and the ballots must be postmarked by March 5. People can request accommodations by emailing accommodations@iowademocrats.org or calling (515) 216-3893.

According to a 2021 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 1 in 4 Iowans have a disability. The Iowa Democrats switch to voting for a presidential nominee by mail gets rid of the inaccessible grouping and regrouping system that has taken place in-person at the caucuses in years past. This change in process will make the caucus more accessible and inclusive for many individuals with disabilities.

While it is exciting to see the Iowa Democratic Party make these improvements, as many disabled voters prefer vote-by-mail options, the paper mail-in caucus method still excludes many people. Paper ballots are not accessible to voters who are blind, have low-vision, have difficulty reading, or who may have a disability that impacts their mobility or dexterity and be unable to fill out and return a paper ballot independently and privately.

Only when members of our diverse disability community can equally participate in the process are the results truly representative. When everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, we will achieve a true democracy.


For more information and resources for disabled voters in the 2024 election, please check out AAPD’s Election Engagement Hub.