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Democrats Pressured To Make Iowa Caucuses More Accessible

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Iowa caucuses are on Monday. Voters are going to go to school gyms, churches and other meeting places across the state. Democrats in Iowa have been under pressure to make their caucuses more accessible.

NPR's Juana Summers is in Des Moines. Good morning, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So Democrats are facing some criticism. In what ways is caucusing not accessible to some people?

SUMMERS: So caucusing is a pretty involved process. Voters have to show up in person at a specific time at a specific location to participate in the process. And they can expect to spend some time - even multiple hours - at that location. And for some people, as you might expect, that can be problematic - folks who have to go to work or need to be in class, those who can't get child care or who don't have transportation to get to their caucus site.

Now, there was talk early on about Democrats hosting virtual caucuses. Those would allow Iowans to call in or caucus through a video chat. But that idea was scrapped late last year because of cybersecurity concerns. Now, instead, the Democratic Party is using an expanded satellite caucusing system. They're just shy of 90 satellite caucus sites, most of those in Iowa. And the party has also added more staff in order to help the process run more smoothly.

KING: OK. So there are some things here that make caucusing difficult - work and child care are certainly not small things. The Democrats can't do much about that. But the party is trying to do something for a specific group of people, right? Tell us who they are.

SUMMERS: That's right. So one person I spoke to is Emmanuel Smith. They rely on a wheelchair and have chronic pain and work for the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa. I spoke to them about their 2016 experience. And they told me it took them more than an hour to reach their caucus site and that once they got there, there wasn't enough space to maneuver their wheelchair, even to get to the bathroom. And all told, their caucus process took more than two hours, which is tough if you suffer from fatigue. So this year, Emmanuel told me that they applied to have a satellite caucus site in their apartment building.

EMMANUEL SMITH: Having a satellite location in my apartment building was one of the only ways I knew to at least give me a good chance of being able to attend - not a guarantee but prevent, you know, the long commutes and different issues I've encountered in previous years.

SUMMERS: Smith and other folks I talked to were really explicit about one point. While the satellite caucuses are a positive step, they're a Band-Aid; they're not a solution. And they still want to see more systemic changes to the caucuses so that people like them can fully participate and they don't feel disenfranchised.

KING: I know that you've also been reporting on the immigrant population in Iowa, which is growing, especially the Latino population. Is the language barrier a problem for participation?

SUMMERS: Yeah, it really is. This process itself is a community meeting that involves trying to persuade your neighbor to vote for your candidate of choice, so language is really important and can be a huge barrier. You know, the state is home to roughly 194,000 Latinos, and some, not all, rely on the Spanish language.

And this year, there are about a half dozen Spanish language satellite caucus sites. Marlu Abarca is running one of them. She's lived in Iowa for a decade, and so she told me she gets why this tradition is so special. But she also told me that one of the big challenges is that caucusing itself doesn't translate into Spanish.

MARLU ABARCA: (Speaking Spanish) Caucus - or just caucus, more and more Spanish speakers are becoming familiar with the term. But there's no other word.

SUMMERS: So that really creates this twofold problem. You've got to explain what the process is to get people who may not speak much English involved, and then you've got to walk them through the issues they'll face when they're actually on a caucus site. And across all these groups, people told me that they believe the party has been great at handling issues on an individual basis, but they're hoping in years to come more systemic changes will make this process more empowering and accessible for everyone.

KING: NPR's Juana Summers in Des Moines. Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.