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Disability Advocates Push to Make the Iowa Caucuses More Accessible

7 minute read

When Joel Campbell and roughly 30 other Iowa voters with disabilities gathered in a church auditorium in Ames, Iowa a couple weeks ago, they were prepared to caucus. But instead of debating the best presidential candidate, they were advocating for their favorite breakfast cereal.

“I went with Cinnamon Life because I thought it was a good sense of texture,” says Campbell, 22, who has cerebral palsy and autism. He says he appreciated the experience of mock caucusing. “It’s very important to know how to stand up for our rights,” he explains.

The breakfast cereal-themed training session may seem lighthearted, but it’s part of a serious new effort to help people with disabilities prepare for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Chapters of The Arc, a national disability organization, which has long offered voter registration and education programs, launched a series of mock caucuses for the first time in January. (The Ames event was co-hosted by The Arc and the League of Women Voters.)

“If we can put in a little extra thought and a little extra planning to help take away the barriers in order to get [people with disabilities] involved in the voting process,” says Tricia Crain, executive director of The Arc of Story County, “that makes them feel more important in deciding what’s taking place in our community and in our country.”

People with disabilities have garnered significantly more attention this cycle than in previous years. Nearly all of the top Democratic presidential candidates have released specific plans addressing disability issues and moderators asked a question on the topic at the December debate. Both major political parties have said that they intend to make the Iowa caucuses accessible to the roughly 300,000 voting-aged Iowans with disabilities, and both have posted accommodation pages on their websites, where people can request services such as sign language interpretation, preferred seating or assistance with written forms.

On Jan. 14, the Iowa Democratic Party announced its new accommodation process on Twitter.

But despite the uptick in outreach, some disability advocates say that party efforts have been delayed and disorganized. “We tried to work with both parties for over a year to get them to develop a reasonable accommodation process and a request form on their websites,” Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, told TIME. “Both parties dragged their feet.”

Both Democrats and Republicans in Iowa waited until mid January to post accommodation forms on their websites, for example. And while the Iowa Democratic Party received funds in the fall to hire a team to make the caucuses accessible, its new accessibility director, Amanda Koski, did not start work until Jan. 13. (The Iowa Republican Party does not have a staffer dedicated to accessibility issues at all.)

“Because the IDP made such big promises about this being the most accessible caucus ever, we were really hopeful about the process and that’s why we contacted them so early and we wanted to work with them,” says Annie Matte, voting outreach coordinator for Disability Rights Iowa. “But it’s making claims about accessibility and not actually following through, which is disappointing.”

Some of the problems facing people with disabilities are endemic to the process of caucusing. Unlike voting, where people can cast their ballot anytime polls are open on Election Day, or vote absentee in most places, Iowans intent on caucusing are required to be present at a caucus site a specific time, and be prepared to stay sometimes for hours. Caucusing also requires participants to move around physically, as candidates without enough support are eliminated and people move to join their next choices.

Caucuses are often held in schools, churches and community centers, not all of which have accessible entrances, and the rooms can often get overcrowded, cacophonous and chaotic. All of this can be overwhelming for people with a variety of disabilities, including those who are blind, have hearing loss, or cannot stand for long periods of time, as well as those with sensory processing disorders, and those with PTSD or other mental health conditions.

Kyle Spading, who uses a power wheelchair after being paralyzed in a car accident in 2011, isn’t sure what barriers he faces to caucus this year. In 2016, he almost couldn’t make it into the caucus room at all near his home in Fairfax. “I thought they were going to have to take out a couple of walls just to get me to the main area,” he says. Other caucus-goers helped him navigate the narrow doorways and a family member helped him register once he made it inside.

Still, Iowa Democrats’ communications director Mandy McClure says the party has made a series of “historic changes” this year. Democrats will offer early check-in for precinct caucus sites, in an effort to help people avoid long registration lines, limit caucusing to two rounds to shorten the evening, and introduce a system of so-called satellite caucuses, which can be hosted outside of regular precincts. Any Iowa Democrat could apply to host a satellite caucus and each site will have a trained captain to manage the room, just like at regular precincts. On Feb. 3, Iowa Democrats will oversee 92 satellite caucuses, including one in American Sign Language.

Advocates say it’s unclear whether all of the Democrats’ regular and satellite caucus sites will be accessible to people with disabilities. Some also said that much of the work to organize the satellite caucuses has fallen on those who need them. (The Iowa Republican Party is not holding satellite caucuses at all.)

“I do congratulate [the Iowa Democratic Party] on at least trying to do something, but I think there’s still more that can be done,” says Brooke Lovelace, executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council, about the addition of the satellite caucuses. “We’ve been, and we will continue to be, a resource for both parties,” she adds. “I think they need to reach out to us instead of us reaching out to them.”

After many Iowans faced barriers to accessibility during the 2016 caucuses, Democrats suggested allowing people to participate by phone, but the DNC rejected that plan last fall, citing security concerns.

Catherine Crist, who chairs the state party’s disability caucus, has been working closely with Koski, the new Democratic accessibility director, and says she’s proud of the work her party has done. “Iowa is leading the nation by example on accessibility,” she says, adding, “While our work is far from finished, our years-long effort to shift the culture and expand access for people with disabilities has borne historic progress.”

Matte of Disability Rights Iowa says she hopes both political parties will be more proactive in their preparations going forward. Her organization plans to conduct a survey to get feedback from disabled Iowans who caucused this year so the group can provide more insight to the political parties before 2024. “A big part of the disability community and activities like this is ‘nothing about us without us,’” Matte said, referencing a slogan often used in disability advocacy to emphasize the desire for those affected by policies to be involved in creating them.

Meanwhile, back in Ames, Campbell failed to convince his fellow cereal caucus-goers to support Cinnamon Life, and Lucky Charms ultimately prevailed. But getting that experience, he says, helped prepare him for the real thing next week. And that’s crucial for democratic representation: “People with disabilities,” he says simply, “have a right to vote for which candidate they like best.”

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com