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Your last minute guide to Iowa caucusing


The Iowa caucuses are here at last. -- photo by DonkeyHotey
The Iowa caucuses are here at last. — photo by DonkeyHotey

The day is finally here: the Iowa caucuses take place tonight, Feb. 1. If you need a refresher on how to partake in the political tradition, here’s your cheat sheet for getting out there tonight.

Note: One of many unique things about the Iowa caucuses is that the rules vary by county. This guide is focused primarily on Johnson County, but it’s easy to find the specifics of your county’s caucuses online.

When do I show up for the caucuses?
Unlike normal elections, everyone caucuses at once. You’ll need to be “SIGNED IN or IN LINE by 7 PM,” according to the Johnson County Auditor’s Office. Since a high turnout is expected for these caucuses, you’d be well advised to show up earlier, around 6:30 or sooner.

Where do I caucus?
You might not caucus where you usually vote, and you might not caucus at the same place as your next door neighbor, if you have different political affiliations. Even if you’ve caucused before, it’s likely your location has changed since last time. It may have even changed since last week — locations may have been added right up until the Jan. 25 reporting deadline.

To find out your caucus location, visit the sites the Democrats and Republicans have set up to help you find your location. Johnson County also keeps a centralized list for both parties, as does Linn County.

What do I need to bring?
You do not need identification to caucus, but both the Republicans and Democrats require that you be registered to vote and registered with the party whose caucuses you’re attending. You can register both to vote and with a party at the caucuses, but it’s advised you show up extra early to do so.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office can tell you if you’re eligible to vote. If you plan to register to vote at the caucus, this page explains what you’ll need to do so.

Note that originally the Auditor’s Office said that Republicans would require some kind of identification to caucus, but it has since corrected this information.

How long does caucusing take and what does it involve?
Potentially a few hours, but if all you care about is who’s going to be the nominee for your party of choice, the commitment isn’t quite as lengthy. But in addition to the most publicized event of the night, the caucuses also include choosing delegates for county conventions, and making decisions about what to include in your party’s platform in the coming year. If you want a say in what topics are going to top the priority list, plan on staying a bit longer.

The Auditor’s Office page offers a detailed rundown of sample caucuses for each party, which do differ. (For instance, in the Democratic caucuses, if a candidate doesn’t get 15 percent of votes, they’re deemed nonviable and their supporters can disperse to support other candidates. Meanwhile, the Republican process involves a secret ballot straw poll.) But don’t worry if you don’t feel well-versed — you’ll be guided through it.

A note on snacks: you may be inclined to pack refreshments with you for the evening, but some caucus locations, including ones on University of Iowa property, may have a no-food-and-drink policy (water is allowed).

I’m seventeen but I’ll be eligible to vote in November. Can I caucus?
Yes, you can! If you were born before or on Nov. 8, 1998, you can caucus.

Wait, what are the caucuses? How are they different from primaries?
In brief, aside from the massive amount of attention they receive, the caucuses are not elections run by government bodies but independent meetings of the parties themselves, convened to choose not just a presidential candidate but to plan the party’s agenda. The fact that the caucuses are party-run has implications on how they play out. That’s why Democrats and Republicans hold separate events, and where you caucus and what you need to qualify to do so depends on your party membership.

Where can I learn more?
The New York Times offers a primer for nationwide observers. If you’re still trying to figure out your candidate of choice, this quiz has been popular. John Deeth’s blog is an excellent and engaging resource for Johnson County caucus inside information and procedures. And for some fun, a song from Caucus! The Musical by Robert John Ford.

Tonight, Little Village reporter Matthew Byrd will be live-tweeting his caucus experience. Join in the conversation using #IACaucusIC, letting us know what’s happening at your caucus location.


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