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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 1 June, 2016

Iowa’s extremely confusing system for picking White House hopefuls, explained

After months of controversy and debate, the race for the White House starts for real today.

Primary Pixels Photo Gallery Democrat rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Source: Associated Press

AFTER A PHONY war lasting, for some presidential hopefuls, over a year – the real race to the White House starts today.

Residents of the US state of Iowa will cast the first votes in the months-long 2016 election campaign.

That will be followed in the next few weeks by primaries and caucuses in the states of Nevada and South Carolina.

Super Tuesday – when a number of states, including Texas and Georgia, have their say – takes place on 1 March this year.

So what’s happening today? 

A caucus is a form of local meeting. In Iowa, the Democratic and Republican parties hold their meetings on the same day as they begin the process to determine who will be their presidential nominee (it’s believed the term may come from the Algonquian word caucauasu which means “counselor, elder or adviser”).

The parties use distinct and different methods.

Here’s a look at the crucial process, which can seem like a byzantine puzzle to those not familiar with it.

GOP Campaign 2012 A Republican caucus meeting in Las Vegas in 2012. Source: Associated Press

Who votes? 

In Iowa, as in many states, voters register as Democrat, Republican or independent.

Among Iowa’s 3.1 million inhabitants, there are currently about 584,000 active Democratic voters, 611,000 active Republican voters, and 725,000 registered under no party affiliation, according to Iowa’s secretary of state.

Only Republicans can vote in Republican caucuses, and Democrats in Democratic caucuses.

Voters are allowed to register on site.

Ask AP Precinct chairwoman Judy Wittkop explains the rules during a caucus in Le Mars, Iowa on 3 January 2008. Source: Associated Press

Those who turn 18 by election day on 8 November are eligible to participate in the 1 February caucuses.

Turnout was about 20% for Republicans in 2012 and 39% for Democrats in 2008, an exceptional year due to the high-profile clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama Iowa Source: Associated Press

Where are the polls? 

Each party organises precinct meeting locations, mostly in public places like schools, libraries and other government buildings, but also in private homes.

The Republican and Democratic caucuses are often located close to one another, sometimes just down the hall in the same building.

Democrats will host some 1,681 caucuses, and Republicans roughly the same.

There will also be a virtual ‘tele-caucus’ for US military personnel deployed out of state or overseas, and ‘satellite’ caucuses at locations including nursing homes, where people are not mobile.

For both parties, most meetings begin at 7pm local time (1am Irish time).

YE GOP Campaign 2012 Tea Party supporter William Temple, of Brunswick, Georgia, sits in Des Moines Airport heading home after the Iowa caucus in 2012. Source: Associated Press

How do Republicans do it? 

Republican voters gather at the appointed time and, after some organisational formalities, candidates’ representatives each make a short speech urging voters for support.

A secret ballot is then held. The polling station reports the results to the party, which aggregates the results from the precincts and announces the winner who has received the most votes at the state level.

The precinct results for Republicans – and for Democrats too – will be delivered via a new digital application specially developed by Microsoft, which will replace an outdated telephone system.

GOP 2016 Debate Republican frontrunners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Source: Chuck Burton

How do Democrats do it?  

It’s complicated…

Among Democrats, there is no secret ballot, and some critics argue the process subverts the ‘one person, one vote’ principle proclaimed by the US Supreme Court.

Following initial formalities, supporters of each candidate gather in one area of ​​the caucus room – backers of Hillary Clinton, say, in one corner and those favouring Bernie Sanders in another.

Candidate groups lacking a minimum of 15% support are eliminated, and their backers are then invited to join another preference group.

It is during this realignment that leaders try to rally supporters to their candidates.

The groups’ supporters are then counted, and a candidate is attributed a certain number of delegates proportionally.

The candidate who accrues the most state delegates is proclaimed the winner (this is a truncated version of the process, if you really want more detail check out this Washington Post article). 

The last primaries of the 2016 season happen in June, when voters in states like California and New Jersey have their say in the process.

The candidates will be officially confirmed at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, which happen in July, in Cleveland and Philadelphia respectively.

© – AFP 2016 with reporting by Daragh Brophy. 

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