Such changes would likely upend Iowa’s long-standing status as the first state to vote.
The committee faces a deadline of this summer to make a decision, and it did not vote on specific proposals Friday. Members made plans to meet once a month as they consider changes ahead of the DNC’s summer meeting. But there appeared to be a growing consensus that the calendar needs to change.
“Every now and then we’ve got a moment where we can take stock of where we are as a party and as a country and make adjustments,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic operative who’s a Rules and Bylaws Committee member. “This is one of those moments. Not four years from now. Now.”
Elleithee said Democrats should move presidential battleground states into earlier phases of the nominating process and that the party should favor primaries over caucuses because they are more inclusive. Iowa holds caucuses; Nevada has held caucuses in the past but in 2021 it shifted to primaries for future contests.
Elleithee said he could foresee Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina playing a role in the early portion of the presidential nominating process but that Iowa has a harder case to make.
“I have a harder time seeing it with Iowa. But Iowa should have the opportunity to make that case to us,” he said.
Maria Cardona, another veteran Democratic operative and DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee member, said that “tradition is not a good reason to keep doing something that has passed the moment by.”
She pointed to the inroads Republicans have made in recent years with Latino voters, and said Democrats are “sitting on our laurels and not doing anything about it.”
“You have to evolve and match what the reality is of the situation that you’re in if you want to continue to be competitive,” said Cardona, who is a CNN contributor. “And we are at a point in our country where all of the demographic changes are passing us by from the standpoint of our presidential nominating process. And it’s going to hurt us.”
Lee Saunders, a labor leader and Rules and Bylaws Committee member, echoed Elleithee and Cardona. “We should be talking about being more inclusive and not disenfranchising states, especially those with a diverse population. And that is something we have to grapple with,” he said.
The meeting started hours after the Des Moines Register reported that Rules and Bylaws Committee members were considering a draft resolution that would create avenues for the party to change which states go first in the presidential nominating process.
James Roosevelt, the longtime co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, opened the meeting by criticizing that report.
“Contrary to what one reporter may think, there is no prepared resolution floating around out there,” Roosevelt said.
Still, Scott Brennan, a committee member from Iowa, fumed over the Register’s report and the draft resolution.
“I feel like I got whipsawed today,” he said, complaining that the draft did not reflect the Rules and Bylaws Committee’s previous discussions. He was particularly critical of the draft’s call to remove caucuses from the nominating process.
“It’s not fair to the people of Iowa. It’s not fair to the four early states. And if we want to have a process, that’s fine, but let’s do it in sunlight, not in darkness,” Brennan said. “By putting that on paper the way it was done, you set parameters. … We’re going to have a fulsome discussion, but I believe that that process came about backwards.”
Rules and Bylaws Committee co-chair Lorraine Miller said the draft had been prepared by staff and was merely for discussion. “The press will interpret things the way they want to interpret it,” she said. “That was just notes.”
Cardona shot back that Democrats are serious about eliminating caucuses, though.
“Conversation in this committee has certainly, certainly, undoubtedly, been about moving toward primaries and going away from caucuses,” Cardona said. “People should not think that that came out of left field.”
Friday’s meeting was just the latest step toward overhauling a primary calendar that senior Democrats criticize as being too heavily focused on less diverse states and less accessible caucuses. Iowa especially has been under pressure in recent years. Ahead of 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party proposed adding “virtual caucuses,” which would’ve allowed caucusgoers to participate without needing to be at a physical caucus site on the traditional Monday evening. That plan was rejected by the DNC over security concerns, though the party did hold a series of satellite caucuses for Iowans in different states or countries.Caucus night itself was beset with chaos. A new mobile app for reporting results from the nearly 1,700 caucus sites across the state didn’t work properly, and phone lines backed up as organizers tried to call in their results. The outcome was confusion and delayed results, which blunted the bounce that Iowa often gives to candidates who perform well.
Artie Blanco, a Rules and Bylaws Committee member from Nevada, made a pitch for her own state that was an implicit contrast with Iowa, which committee members appeared poised to demote. She noted Nevada’s shift to a primary, its diversity and its status as a competitive state and one allowing same-day voter registration and permanent mail ballots.
“The four early states have actually done our work historically to represent, and I think to test, future presidential candidates. But at the end of the day, Nevada really does check off every step of that process,” Blanco said. “Our voters are diverse, not only in race, in economic diversity. We both have urban and rural communities that participate in our process. And we have really opened up the ballot to reach everyone.”
David McDonald, a committee member from Washington state, said Democrats should make changes that don’t “create a new tradition” that forces similar conversations in future decades, and should instead begin with a new calendar of early-voting states each presidential cycle to avoid “the presumption that once you’re in the window, you will likely stay in the window.”
DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison opened the meeting with brief comments that echoed the arguments of those who say Democrats should begin their nominating process with more diverse states.
“Our party is best when we reflect the people we are trying to serve. And it’s just plain as that. This process will be guided by that North Star,” he said.
Committee members also broadly supported changes the party had made before the 2020 primary to so-called superdelegates, party leaders who get to vote at the convention by nature of their position and are free to support any candidates they choose. The party reduced the power of superdelegates by preventing them from voting on the first ballot if they’d be able to swing the nomination.
“I thought it was great. It took away a major issue that had raised distrust with the Democratic Party,” said Frank Leone, a Rules and Bylaws Committee member from Washington, DC. “I thought it was terrific.”
“I also support it and agree that it was great. I got a lot less hate mail and hate tweets and insults,” Cardona said.