We Need to Fix Inaccessibility at Caucusing and Campaign Events

A big blue sign that says "Iowa Democratic Party"
Photo: Kevin McGovern/Shutterstock

One of the things I miss most about living permanently in Iowa is the constant flurry of activity around the political process. Iowa is the first state to nominate a candidate during primary elections, regardless of party, meaning presidential candidates campaign heavily in our state, making a multitude of visits and holding a variety of campaign events.

The Iowa Democratic Party chooses their candidate through caucusing, which is a cool process in that it encourages discussion among caucus goers, but a not-so-cool process in that it usually takes a few hours and is generally quite hectic. It is perhaps a somewhat archaic undertaking that could use some updating. But there’s one major reason in particular that Iowa caucusing needs to be rethought: it is deeply inaccessible.

In 2019, the DNC rejected the proposal for virtual caucusing in Iowa due to concern over the ease with which hackers could compromise results. While this concern is certainly valid (look at foreign interference in the 2016 election, for example), there is still a great need for a way to participate in the caucusing process beyond being physically present.

In order for me to attend the caucus as a wheelchair user, for example, I would need someone to transport me to and from the location where it’s being held, and I would need to make sure the person accompanying me has a flexible schedule as there is often no telling how long the caucus will take. While this isn’t too difficult for me because I have a wheelchair accessible van and personal care attendants who are also politically involved, this is certainly not the case for every disabled person.

Being able to physically attend an event is not something everyone can do, especially if that event is not guaranteed to be accessible, as many disabled individuals can attest to, and as disability justice organization Sins Invalid explains in their disability justice primer, Skin, Tooth, and Bone. And while it’s likely that caucuses will be held in step-free buildings, permitting wheelchair users to attend, this is just one tiny facet of accessibility and does not take into account all of the needs of voters. For example, are there sign language interpreters for D/deaf voters? Enough chairs for people with mobility impairments, chronic pain, or fatigue? Quiet rooms to go to for individuals who are sensitive to overstimulation?

Perhaps these needs seem inconsequential because the majority (if not all) of the individuals you have seen caucusing in the past are seemingly nondisabled. But if caucuses are inherently inaccessible, of course the sample of voters in attendance are likely nondisabled, or not visibly disabled. We want to be in “the room where it happens,” to borrow a line from Aaron Burr in Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, especially considering this “room” is where decisions on disability policy happen–decisions that impact our lives in every way.

The Central Iowa Center for Independent Living will be hosting an “Inclusive/Accessible Satellite Caucus” on Monday, February 3, the same night as the caucus across the state. Advertised as having an American Sign Language-exclusive satellite caucus onsite, providing activities for children, and having a low-anxiety atmosphere, this is certainly a much-needed event and a step in the right direction for the political realm. However, this event should not be an anomaly, nor should these sorts of accommodations be provided only at this location.

The general inaccessibility of caucuses is illustrative of a larger problem with inaccessibility at campaign events. We need to have more than seating sections that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; we need full consideration of access needs. Additionally, smaller events such as parties traditionally held at houses (which are hardly ever accessible) need to start being held at public locations. While disability rights policy is becoming something all candidates are now delving into, it’s only accomplishing so much if such important political events exclude those whose voices should be prioritized in these discussions. It is absolutely imperative that true access becomes something not seen as a luxury or “nice perk,” but a necessity.

Yes, making sure everyone can attend political events is going be an extra cost, but campaigns should budget for this. As Skin, Tooth, and Bone asks, if you are not budgeting for events to be accessible, what are you prioritizing over the inclusion of everyone? We all have our work cut out for us this year if we’re going to make sure the 2016 election isn’t repeated. Let’s make sure we’re including everyone along the way.

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Hannah Soyer (she/her) is a queer disabled writer born and living in the Midwest. Her work explores the representation of “Othered” bodies, and how the arts–in particular storytelling–can be beautiful acts of survival, resistance, and community building. She is the founder of This Body is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers. She also happens to be a cat and chocolate enthusiast.