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February 10, 2020

Student Voice: Here’s what I saw wrong with the Iowa caucus

Jennifer Hellwig with her classmates Annabel Panayotov and Lainie Kubow (from left to right) at the Iowa caucuses. Photo: Jennifer Hellwig

by Jennifer Hellwig, senior, Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois

Before my classmates and I made our way to an Iowa caucus spot, I walked down the red aisles of a Des Moines Target store. Located in a mall, it looked similar to the one where I work part-time. Inside, 10 to 15 employees were operating the store — standard for a Monday night. After I left for the caucus, it suddenly occurred to me that none of those workers would be caucusing that night.

During my high school’s Political Action Club trip to the Iowa caucus, we witnessed many of the problems that exist within the caucus system. What troubled me the most was how the process seemed to hinder precisely what we should be encouraging: high voter turnout. Taking place at 7pm on a Monday night, the event was the opposite of convenient. Caucuses can last up to three hours, conflicting with work or school. Many people who might want to participate can’t attend or aren’t able to give up the time that it requires.

After I left [Target] for the caucus, it suddenly occurred to me that none of those workers would be caucusing that night.”

Of course, organizers tried to mitigate this. Democrats set up satellite caucuses for those who were out of town or couldn’t fit the event into their schedule. But only 16 percent of Iowa’s eligible population attended the caucuses last election. By comparison, the turnout in New Hampshire, which has a primary instead of a caucus, was about 54 percent in that same election.

In order for us to elect representatives who support the working class, we need to make voting accessible for all –especially when we are dealing with issues in 2020 that directly impact this group.

At Target, I work with students in community college paying for their own education. I work with mothers raising multiple children. I work with people who see themselves living on a Target paycheck for the rest of their career. These are the voters who need to have a say on issues such as raising the minimum wage, implementing affordable healthcare and expanding access to college education.

I also noticed the lack of racial diversity and age range. At my precinct, the crowd was overwhelmingly white and members of older generations; and looking at the data from the entire night, my caucus site was not an outlier.

An important step in making our elections more democratic would be to use the primary system in all 50 states, which would make voting more accessible for everyone.”

If the Democrats want to defeat Donald Trump, they must prioritize listening to diverse perspectives. This means encouraging high voter turnout among different generations, races, genders and identities. The emphasis placed on the Iowa caucuses holds us back.

The Iowa problem highlights a larger issue at the national level—our nation’s reliance on tradition and the status quo when it comes to its elections. An important step in making our elections more democratic would be to use the primary system in all 50 states, which would make voting more accessible for everyone. Furthermore, states like South Carolina that have large minority populations might be better off going first in the electoral process. Finally, primary elections should depend on the state’s popular vote instead of using the delegate process, which decreases the power of an individual’s voice.

My biggest takeaway from attending the Iowa caucuses was that Americans need to change the way we think about our elections. By looking toward the future instead of clinging to ineffective traditions we can help ensure that voting is a right exercised by all regardless of races and income levels – and not just a privileged subset of society.


If you’re a student interested in submitting a piece for Student Voice sharing your thoughts about the primaries or Election 2020, please send an email to Vic Pasquantonio at vpasquantonio@newshour.org


For monthly updates containing teacher resources on Election 2020, click here.

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