Democrats voted to make history on Friday by emphasizing and elevating Black voices in the early days of the presidential nominating process, creating a seismic shift in the way America chooses its leaders.
Iowa will no longer host its first-in-the-nation caucuses under the plan put forward by President Joe Biden and approved by the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, ending a 50-year tradition. Instead, South Carolina — a state with a substantial Black population that helped deliver the nomination to Biden in 2020 — will lead an early voting window that will be significantly more diverse than in years past.
Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan will follow — a slate of states that the committee says will reflect the many pockets of diversity that make up the party’s growing base.
With a voice vote, the committee decided overwhelmingly to approve the plan, which must now be ratified by the full DNC early next year. Iowa and New Hampshire rules committee members were alone in voting against the proposal, which the panel's chairs shared with the committee late Thursday after Biden offered his recommended calendar.
“I’m so proud that we're going to hear from more voices — voices of those who simply yearn to be heard. To be seen,” said committee member Donna Brazile, a former acting chair of the DNC.The calendar “is going to speak to all of us, because we know that our role in this party and our role as Democrats and as Americans is to open doors.”
Under the proposal, South Carolina will vote first, and Nevada and New Hampshire will share a second primary date. Georgia and then Michigan round out the early voting period before Super Tuesday.
However, the voting order is contingent on states certifying by Jan. 5 that they have made any necessary statutory changes and will hold their primary on the date prescribed by the committee, regardless of when any other state holds its primary contest.
The requirements for New Hampshire go further. The state's governor, Senate majority leader and House majority leader — all Republicans — must provide signed letters to the committee agreeing to make the statutory changes necessary to hold the state's primary on the prescribed date. Those state officials must also certify that they will expand access to early voting.
If they are able to meet those requirements, the 2024 calendar will be set:
South Carolina: Feb. 3
New Hampshire: Feb. 6
Nevada: Feb. 6
Georgia: Feb. 13
Michigan: Feb. 27
The proposal was met with appreciation by many of the committee members, who praised it as a welcome step forward in complicated negotiations over how to evolve with the changing face of their party.
“The logistics of this window will be something we need to navigate as a committee,” said committee co-chair Minyon Moore. “But I agree with the president that this is a bold window that reflects the values of our party, and it is a window worth fighting for.”
But leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, who did not receive their preferred spots on the calendar, are already promising to buck the committee’s decision and hold contests as they see fit. Each state has laws requiring it to hold the first caucus and first primary, respectively.
“New Hampshire does have a statute. We do have a law. And we will not be breaking our law,” said Joanne Dowdell, New Hampshire’s representative to the committee. “And I feel that any lawyer in the room or around the table would agree that it is not in the best interest of this body to even suggest that we do that.”
The Iowa Democratic Party chairman, Ross Wilburn, said Iowa will continue holding its caucuses ahead of others.
“The bottom line is we have to follow Iowa law,” he said in an interview.
Graham Wilson, general counsel to the DNC, said that while the body doesn’t have the power to mandate a change to state law, it does have the power to dictate the process by which it selects its presidential nominee.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized political parties' rights under the First Amendment to select the manner of choosing our own nominee and has in fact repeatedly invalidated state laws that limit or infringe on a party's ability to dictate how they select their nominee,” he said.
States could be punished for not following the DNC calendar
Committee members noted changes they approved earlier this year that will inflict greater penalties on states and candidates that defy the DNC’s chosen calendar.
Any state violating the calendar will automatically lose half its delegates to the national convention. The committee also strengthened its rules so candidates are precluded from campaigning in any state that goes outside the window — including putting their name on the ballot. Any candidate who violates that rule will get no delegate votes from that state.
Additionally, the DNC chair has the leeway to take any other steps deemed appropriate to enforce the rules.
D.C. committee member Mo Elleithee said the changes give the DNC “more teeth than I think it ever has before" as it seeks to enforce its rules.
Iowa’s representative to the committee, Scott Brennan, said that despite the enforcement rules, the vote will create a climate of confusion and jockeying among states that could drag out through much of 2023.
He pointed to the limited amount of time on the calendar, a tangle of conflicting state laws and “a GOP calendar that no longer bears any resemblance to ours.”
“We can vote on this calendar. We can approve this calendar. But we will leave here with nothing settled,” he said.
He and Carol Fowler, the committee member from South Carolina, questioned whether the five-state calendar was too condensed — particularly among the first three states, which would all vote within a week.
But members, by and large, cheered their passage of the calendar for 2024.
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison of South Carolina apologized for growing emotional as he spoke about the racist history of his home state, which is now poised to hold such a politically powerful place on the Democrats' calendar.
"South Carolina is a state where 40% of enslaved people came through the Port of Charleston. Forty percent of enslaved people," he said. "You can go anywhere in this country, you talk to Black folks, and I guarantee you they got a cousin in South Carolina. This is a place where the Civil War was started."
He listed out the power of the other states and what they bring to the nominating process.
"Nevada, where Latinos have been building their political power and lifting their voices," he said. "Michigan: the heartland, where unions built the middle class, not in just that state but in the nation. Georgia, where the phoenix of the new South has risen from the ashes of the old South — a new South that is bold, that is inclusive, that is diverse, reflecting all of our diverse and progressive values. And New Hampshire, continuing the tradition, a great tradition, here in America that small government is good government — small government by the people and for the people."
The job of the committee, noted member Stuart Appelbaum of New York, is “not just to choose states and the order in which they go, but to tell the story of who we are as a party and who we are as a nation.”
“Our early states must reflect the overall diversity of our party and our nation, economically, geographically, demographically,” he said. “... I think that the story we are telling with these selections is a story we can be proud of as the Democratic Party of the United States. This is what our party looks like. This is what America looks like.”
Iowa Democratic chair: Overlooking Midwestern states is 'a mistake,'
Wilburn, the first Black Iowan to chair the state party, said he was deeply disappointed with the president’s recommendations.
He noted that, with the exceptions of a few counties in Michigan, there is no early state on the proposed calendar that will fall in the Central or Mountain time zones, which cover the vast central part of the country.
He called that “a mistake.”
If the proposed calendar is approved, “they will be ignoring the voice of middle America with all our diversity and all of the strong grassroots networks that we have,” Wilburn said of the DNC.
In his letter to the rules committee, Biden said, “Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process,” and that, “It should be our party's goal to rid the nominating process of restrictive, anti-worker caucuses.”
Wilburn said he was disappointed that Biden didn’t take into account the extensive changes Iowa Democrats have proposed to streamline its process.
Rather than caucusing in person with attendees rotating around the room to show their preferences, Iowans would caucus entirely by mail over the course of several weeks.
The results of that mail-in process would be announced on caucus night, where Iowa Democrats would continue to gather for the party-building work that also has traditionally been part of the caucuses.
But the process is not over, Wilburn emphasized.
“We expected the president to weigh in at some point as part of this process,” he said. “And so the process actually begins today.”
Iowa Republicans have also weighed in to support their Democratic counterparts.
“Regardless of what the DNC says, I encourage the Iowa Democratic Party to move forward with its plan to follow Iowa law and hold Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation Caucuses just as the Republican Party of Iowa is doing," U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement Friday. "Iowa should not allow coastal headwinds to blow away Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.”
But not everyone is ready for the fight.
C.J. Petersen, Stonewall Caucus chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a voting member of the state central committee, said in a statement to the Des Moines Register that he disagreed with Wilburn.
“Iowa has had its turn,” he said. “It’s time to let other states be part of the early conversation when it comes to choosing our party’s nominees for president. I will vote to accept the DNC recommendation when it comes before us" at the state central committee.
Before concluding the meeting, Harrison, the national party chair, made an appeal to Iowans and thanked Wilburn and Brennan for their efforts to represent Iowa.
"I want folks in Iowa also to understand that this does not diminish your value as a state and what you bring to America and what you bring to this party," he said. "We will continue to work with Iowa to make sure that you all have resources that you can compete on the congressional level, on the state and legislative level. That commitment is unwavering."
Brazile, who has spent many election cycles in Iowa in various capacities, told the Register that Iowa has a rich tradition that it can now share and pass on to new states.
“Without the tradition, without the type of retail politics, without the type of vigorous examination that the people in Iowa would often give to these candidates, we would not have enjoyed the type of electoral success the party has,” she told the Des Moines Register. “And I think that that's in large part attributed to the people of Iowa and the process that often got us underway. ... It's an amazing tradition. And it's time that we see what South Carolina can do with that tradition.”
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter at @fran_chambers.
DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Democrats set 2024 presidential primary plan; South Carolina to lead