How to Caucus: What You Need to Know for Caucus Night

Published: Jan. 25, 2016 at 5:48 PM CST
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With just one week until the Iowa caucuses, staff and students at Cornell College worked to clear up any confusion around how the process works for both parties.

“One of the major deterrents to people participating is lack of knowledge,” said Hans Hassell, associate professor of politics. “They feel insecure about the process or don’t know where their precinct is.”

That’s why both the Republican and Democratic groups on the college campus held mock caucuses, inviting student to participate in both events to get a feel for how it all works.

“I don’t really view myself as an Iowan,” said Cornell student Ashley Uphoff, a Minnesota native.

Uphoff has never been eligible to vote in a national election. For state elections, she registered in her home state. This will be here first time participating in the democratic process as a registered voter in Iowa and the first time she’s experienced the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus process up close.

“For this election I though since it’s national, it doesn’t really matter where I vote.,” Uphoff said. “I really want to be involved in a state that is so interested politically and has such a sway on the election.”

Cornell staff member Katie Wilson helped organize Monday’s mock caucuses, and walked Uphoff and several other students through the basics that apply to both parties.

“Get there early, the doors will be locked at 7:00 p.m.,” she advised the group. “And you have to be registered as a republican or democrat. If you’re a registered independent, or not registered, you can change that the day-of – but you’ll need to get there even earlier.”

Finding your caucus location is the most crucial step, according to Hassel.


The website will ask for your home address and then give you the name of your precinct location. From there, it links to both the party websites, where you can find your location by name.

Once you’ve identified where to go, the next step is ensuring you’re a registered member of your party.

If you do plan to register, update your registration, or change parties on caucus night, you will be asked to fill out a registration form, which both parties will provide at the caucuses.

You do not need to show a proof of ID or address to register, but you will be asked to list your driver’s license number. If you do not have a driver’s license, you will be asked to list the last four digits of your social security number.

Once you’re signed in, procedures vary between the two parties.

The Republican process:

“The caucus is about engagement and building the party, it’s not just about the preference poll,” said Gary Ellis, secretary of the Linn County Republican Central Committee. “After a candidate representative speaks for each candidate, we will elect temporary chairs and secretaries.”

After that, ballots are distributed and secretly filled out by caucus-goers.

“Then we’ll collect the ballots, count the ballots, and fill out a form to report the official record from the precinct,” Ellis said.

Ellis said about half of caucus participants leave once the secret ballots are counted. The other half stay to elect precinct committee people, gather county, district, and state delegates – which varies by county, and elect people to county convention committees.

Ellis said for those who stay through the entire process, it typically takes about two hours – depending on how large a precinct is.

The Democrat process:

Precinct organizers will begin by counting exactly how many people are at each precinct location. Participants will divide into Presidential preference groups, standing in areas designated for each candidate.

From there, it’s a numbers game.

“In order to cast a ballot for a candidate, that candidate has to have what's called a viability threshold,” said Hassell. “Which means they have to have at least 15 percent of the vote for any votes to be cast for that particular candidate.”

If a candidate does not have enough people to be considered viable, people have the opportunity to move to a different preference group or convince people to support their candidate to reach viability.

Delegates are then awarded to the preference groups based on their size.

Hassell said the process may sound complicated on paper, but organizers will walk participants through the night step-by-step.

“You show up, you sign in, and you participate,” Hassell said. “It really is that simple.”