by Michael Goldberg

Can’t We Do Better Than the Iowa Caucuses?

Jan 03, 20084 mins

And now for an unsolicited attack on Iowa.

I’m not talking about the people of Iowa–though I found it annoying that Fox News Network just this morning posted a screen blurb stating, incredulously, “UNDECIDED VOTERS STILL UNDECIDED IN IOWA.” (What are they supposed to be, decisive? So much for millions spent on thousands of TV commercials. One gets the impression that voters in early primary states really quite enjoy the media attention brought about by their indecision.)

But give the people a break. Instead I’m talking about the process of the Iowa caucuses which are held tonight in church basements and school auditoriums and other places where people congregate on a frigid winter night to express their presidential preferences. There are many ways the Iowa caucuses are unjust — starting with the fact that it’s unfair for 150,000 voters in a small state to narrow the field of White House candidates for 300 million Americans (what about a national primary election instead, or regional votes?). But even just zeroing in on the Hawkeye State, consider who won’t be able to participate in tonight’s candidate preference picking, as noted in this New York Times article:

* Soldiers serving overseas.

* People who have to work tonight (from hospital emergency rooms to restaurants and other businesses).

* People who are traveling outside of their voting precinct during the hours during which the caucuses are held (especially in the case of Democrats, whose rules require attendees to stick around).

* Parents who can’t afford a babysitter, or others who need to care for a sick or disabled relative (and even if they could, that helper wouldn’t be able to attend a caucus).

The Democrats and Republicans each have spelled out specific rules for making tonight’s caucus process fair and open. But they don’t wash. “Just as nonrepresentative as Iowa is of the country, Iowa caucusgoers are nonrepresentative of Iowa as a whole,” Samuel Issacharoff, an election law expert from New York University, told The Times. Yes, they don’t have to work or care for kids or others in their lives. Or, they don’t have to be called to fight for their country.

Is this any way to run our democracy?

We have voters questioning candidates on YouTube, and Ron Paul raising millions via “netroots.” There are Facebook followers watching online network correspondents who you won’t see on TV filing reports via web 2.0 applications, and much more going on. But when it comes to actually picking a candidate, we have to rely on those lucky Iowans who have money, time and health enough to go?

What if we applied some IT tools to the problem? We have telecommuters and teleconferences. We have web-based meetings on WebEx and upstarts like dimdim. We have Skype and iPhones and BlackBerrys and Palm Centros and Verizon Voyagers. Can’t we apply a little touch technology to this problem, connect constituents to their candidates and create a caucus worthy of a democracy?

I expect there will be readers who will invoke the controversies and problems that surround electronic voting, authenticating one person for one vote, training citizens who are not computer savvy to participate. Those are

real problems. But so is this.

It was way back in 1992 that Ross Perot, running as an independent presidential candidate fixated on his budget deficit pie charts, floated the idea of an electronic town hall, where far-flung people could influence debates on national issues. That was in the days of Web 1.0. In technology terms we’ve come a long way. But not so far when it comes to the Iowa caucuses and their place in the American democracy.

What would make this process work better? Let’s start the discussion now. We’ve got until 2012 to figure it out.