How The Iowa Caucus Voting Works: A Quick Primer

With Iowa Republicans set to vote tonight in the state Republican caucuses, thus kicking off the national GOP’s presidential nominating process, some readers might be wondering: How exactly do the caucuses work?

As with most elections, the results will come in over a rolling period of two to three hours — but for a very different reason than we usually see. Normally, polling places close at the same time, and then take different amounts of time to conduct their counts. In this case, caucus meetings all start at the same time, but take different lengths of time to conduct their business.

Thus, the meetings will begin at 7 p.m. CT (8 p.m. ET), and then results will start to come in over the next two hours. Which then brings us to process itself, and how caucus attendees will be voting — and what exactly they are voting for.

Readers might recall that in the 2008 Democratic caucus Iowa between Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton (and in the successive caucuses between Obama and Clinton), supporters of each candidate would stand in crowds, with a 15% viability threshold, and the option for supporters of lesser candidates to switch to a viable second choice.

However, Republican caucuses do not use any such process. Instead, they use the simple process of the secret ballot, with voters casting a ballot for one and only one candidate, and the votes then tabulated from around the state and announced to the media.

Also keep in mind that turnout will probably not be very high. In the 2008 Republican caucuses, only just under 119,000 people voted. As such, tonight’s much-awaited result is likely to only represent a small number of voters, who will likely winnow out some of the weaker candidates, and give a big victory to another — in order to launch a potentially longer nomination process for the other states.

Before the vote, each campaign is able to have an official representative deliver a short speech on behalf of the candidate (usually a local supporter, volunteering for the task).

The votes are in fact all write-in votes — caucus attendees are each given a blank piece of paper, onto which they write the name of the candidate of their choice. Afterwards, the local precinct will count up the votes, with campaign representatives allowed to observe the process. (The state GOP tells TPM that close misspellings will be counted.) The results are then announced to the local caucus, and in turn communicated upward to the state GOP headquarters.

Also unlike other states, no actual national delegates will be awarded tonight. Instead, the votes recorded tonight are in effect just a straw poll. At the same time, though, the caucuses will elect delegates to the county conventions in March — which will in turn set off a process by which nearly half of the state’s delegates will be chosen at Congressional District-level conventions in April, and the remainder of the elected delegates will be chosen at the state convention in June.

And how many delegates will this be? There are 13 delegates for the Congressional district, plus 12 statewide, plus 3 RNC members who are also delegates. (Every state has a flat-rate number of three RNC members, a different thing from the Democrats’ super-delegate system that became so controversial in 2008.)

Thus, we are all waiting tonight for projected results of 25 elected delegates in one state — out of 2,286 total delegates nationwide.

Note – this post was written by Eric Kleefeld for Talking Points Memo and appears here via a content sharing agreement with Mediaite.

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