'Everyone in the territory is disenfranchised': Washington DC should replace Iowa as first presidential nominating contest

'Everyone in the territory is disenfranchised': Washington DC should replace Iowa as first presidential nominating contest
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The Iowa caucus has been the first presidential nomination contest for 50 years. Democrats are considering ousting it from its place.

They should.

They should replace it with Washington, DC.

Iowa’s status is in jeopardy for a number of reasons. The main one is that the state party catastrophically fumbled the 2020 caucus results.

Thanks to reliance on a new app and new technology, results weren’t finalized for weeks, leading to chaos, conspiracy theories and confusion. It was a debacle that exacerbated divisions in the party.

No one wants to repeat it.

Democratic critics have other reasons. Caucuses require people to gather at a particular time and place for long periods of time compared to primaries. (Caucuses are an open vote. Primaries are a secret vote.) That means caucuses are often difficult to access for disabled people as well as with inflexible hours and childcare needs.

If the Democratic Party cares about disabled rights and economic equity, giving a caucus pride of place is a poor way to show it.

Iowa is unrepresentative in other ways.

Its population is about 85 percent white. In comparison, the country as a whole is 72 percent white. The Democratic electorate is 54% white.

Starting the primary process with Iowa means candidates without strong support among Black people and people of color get a boost early on. That’s not a good way to judge general election strength. Nor is it a good way for the party to honor its antiracist commitments.

For all these reasons, the Democrats are considering choosing a different state to go first. Illinois is one frontrunner. Its breakdown of white college-educated voters, white non-college-educated voters, Black voters and Hispanic voters closely mirror rates in the nation.

There are other factors to consider, though.

Demographics are important. But we should also think about the fact that the state that goes first helps set a policy agenda.

Iowa’s place, for example, has privileged ethanol subsidies.

Ethanol is a biofuel made primarily of corn. It can be mixed with gasoline. The US offers a tax subsidy to ethanol blenders which comes to $5.7 billion a year.

In theory, ethanol is supposed to reduce reliance on gasoline, lower prices and help reduce climate gasses.

In practice, ethanol isn’t cost-competitive with gasoline, and does little to reduce carbon emissions in the long run.

It also diverts massive amounts of land from food production. Land devoted to corn ethanol could feed 150 million people.

Removing farm and grazing land from food production drives up the price of food. Ground beef costs twice as much because of ethanol. Flour and rice are 50 percent more than they would otherwise be.

“The ethanol program functions as a hidden food tax — the most regressive of all taxes,” writes Mario Loyola in The Atlantic. “And the effects on poor Americans are magnified for poor countries that depend on imports of food.”

Iowa is the leading corn-producing state. Ethanol subsidies are very popular there. As a result, candidates trying to get an early Iowa bump tend to tour ethanol plants and make ethanol promises.

Even progressive Bernie Sanders, a longstanding opponent of ethanol, switched his position in 2020. In an effort to sway Iowa voters, he argued (unconvincingly) that ethanol helps fight climate change.

When looking for a replacement for Iowa, the Democrats should consider what policy they would like to push candidates to embrace rather than ethanol subsidies.

There’s no policy more important to the health of the country right now than voting rights. And no state would better highlight voting rights than Washington, DC.

DC isn’t yet a state. That’s the point. As a territory, Washington, DC, has three electoral votes it casts for president, but it has no senators and no representatives. Everyone in the territory is disenfranchised.

Black people have historically been the main target of disenfranchisement in the US. Republicans continue to push policies to make it more difficult for Black people to vote.

Washington is 50 percent Black. It would almost certainly elect Black senators and representatives. Statehood would be the single best way for the Democrats to enfranchise Black people nationwide.

Democrats have begun pushing DC statehood more vigorously. Joe Manchin effectively scuttled progress, as he often does.

That defeat was all the more bitter because DC disenfranchisement made it possible. Manchin would not have a veto on Democratic priorities in an evenly divided Congress if DC had representation and two voting senators to override him.

DC has other recommendations too.

It’s fairly small – about 693,000 people. That means that even less-known politicians would have a chance to introduce themselves to the electorate, just as they do in Iowa, even though DC’s primary would pull in a higher percentage of voters than the restrictive caucuses.

Illinois, in contrast, is much larger. Establishment candidates would have a major advantage.

The main reason to choose DC, though, is because it is a symbol of our broken electoral system, and a call to fix it.

Republicans have major structural advantages in the Senate because largely white rural states like Wyoming have disproportionate voting power compared to their population.

Removing that bias is vital for a progressive agenda and for the long-term health of democracy. Nothing would focus attention on this issue like putting DC at the beginning of the primary calendar.

Instead of candidates trooping around cornfields, talking up ethanol, you’d have would-be nominees going from DC church to DC church talking about how, if elected, they will make DC statehood a priority.

It’s time to replace a primary calendar that emphasizes narrow pork-barrel boondoggles with one putting democracy at the center.

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