CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Iowa Democrats will allow some voters to organize their own presidential caucuses in 2020, part of a plan to make the state’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest more accessible for people who cannot attend one of the party’s 1,678 designated caucus sites.
The state party’s plan, which the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee sanctioned on Friday, is designed to assuage concerns that Iowa’s caucuses are exclusionary and depress turnout because they require in-person participation at a midwinter evening event.
The plan will allow Iowans to apply to hold their own ad hoc caucuses Feb. 3 wherever there are groups of Democrats who wish to participate. These satellite caucuses could take place at places like factories, restaurants or group homes, or at overseas or out-of-state military instillations where Iowans are posted, party officials said.
The onus will be on people who cannot attend the regular caucuses to apply to hold their own gathering. A state party panel would then approve or reject the satellite caucus locations. Satellite caucus results would be reported through an app, officials said.
“A satellite caucus system is the best possible solution to build on the great work of caucus organizers and keep focused on our goal of giving more Iowans a voice in our party,” Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement Thursday night.
The party’s proposal came after more than a year of debate about how to increase accessibility for the caucuses. In a state of more than three million people, the most that have participated in a presidential caucus was about 240,000 for the 2008 Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
In August 2018, D.N.C. members voted to adopt new rules for the 2020 presidential primary that encouraged states that held caucuses to switch to primaries and required remaining caucus states to allow for a form of participation that did not require attending an event. Other reforms included reducing the power of the party’s superdelegates.
Iowa Democrats had worked for months to design and implement a “virtual” caucus system, which would have allowed participation through a dial-in phone system. The D.N.C. rejected that proposal last month after party security officials said it was vulnerable to hacking.
Iowa Democrats also considered mailing absentee paper ballots, but feared such a system would be considered a primary by New Hampshire officials, who are bound by their state constitution to hold the nation’s first primary and could have tried to leapfrog Iowa on the presidential calendar.
Mandy McClure, an Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman, said Iowa and New Hampshire officials had communicated about the latest Iowa proposal. “We’ve been partners with New Hampshire,” she said.
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The satellite caucuses must take place at the same time as Iowa’s regularly scheduled caucuses, which are set to begin at 7 p.m. Central time on Feb. 3. That could require some groups of overseas caucusgoers to hold middle-of-the-night gatherings and could still hinder participation by shift workers and restaurant employees who work in the evenings.
“Voting by mail for all those who sign affidavits saying they are working that night or physically unable to caucus would be a much simpler and more equitable solution,” said Larry Cohen, a D.N.C. member from Maryland who played a leading role in developing the party’s rules and guidelines for the 2020 primary process.
In 2016 the party allowed four satellite caucus locations after allowing groups who “demonstrated a clear need” to petition to hold their own caucuses.
Democratic officials in Iowa and Washington said they did not have an initial estimate of how many people would participate in the satellite caucuses, and by Friday morning the presidential campaigns had not been briefed on the specifics of how they would operate.
Matt Stevens contributed reporting from New York.