College kid caucus stuffing in Iowa?

A debate rages in the first voting state about whether college students should exercise their legal rights.

Published December 12, 2007 5:41PM (EST)

The clock is ticking on the Iowa caucuses, with just 22 days before zero hour, which means it's time to address the ever-present specter of electoral fraud. For decades, the Iowa caucuses have been relatively clean affairs, unlike in South Carolina, where muck rules. In part, this has to do with the process itself, which is so Byzantine that for Democrats it looks more like musical chairs than voting. (For those who want to understand how it works, see here and here.)

But there is a bad moon rising. For several weeks now, David Yepsen, the reigning dean of the Iowa political press, has been writing columns that portend evil on the horizon. At the end of November, he wrote a column titled "The Illinois Caucus," which led with these ominous words:

Barack Obama's campaign is telling Iowa college students they can caucus for him even if they aren't from Iowa. His campaign offers that advice in a brochure being distributed on college campuses in the state. A spokesman said it's legal and that 50,000 of the fliers are being distributed. The brochure says: "If you are not from Iowa, you can come back for the Iowa caucus and caucus in your college neighborhood."

Sounds scary and outrageous, right? It's not. Iowa law is very clear. Out-of-state students attending Iowa schools are allowed to caucus, as long as they don't also vote or caucus in their home state. Never mind what the "spokesman said." But this fact did not assuage Yepsen. He argues that the law is not the point. "These are the Iowa caucuses," he continues. "Asking people who are 'not from Iowa' to participate in them changes the nature of the event." This week, he wrote another ominous column. To wit:

Maybe we should call these the Illinois caucuses. Officials and campaigners in both parties are worried that zealous out-of-state staffers and non-Iowa supporters of candidates may try to vote in the caucuses, thereby skewing the results.

His new column casually rolls together several distinct issues. First, there is a legitimate concern that nonstudent residents from Nebraska or Illinois could come and try to register for the Iowa caucuses, which would be illegal. (To participate in the Democratic caucus people must register as Democrats, legally stating that they live in the state, though there is no requirement to show identification.) Second, there is a debate over whether the out-of-state staffers who have been working on campaigns in Iowa should be counted as residents for the purposes of the caucus, which is more of a gray area, especially if a staffer is sleeping on someone's couch for a few days. Then Yepsen again raises the specter of the totally legal out-of-state Iowa college student. "On the Democratic side, Barack Obama's campaign is telling Iowa college students they can caucus for him even if they aren't from Iowa," Yepsen writes.

From a distance, this is totally bizarre. He singles out Obama, who polls show has the most to gain from the student vote, even though most of the Democratic candidates are telling all Iowa college students to vote legally. Hillary Clinton has apparently tried to jump on the Yepsen bandwagon, insinuating malicious intent. "This is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here," she said at a recent appearance in Clear Lake. At the same time, of course, the Clinton campaign is continuing its effort to turn out its own out-of-state Iowa student supporters. "Hillary wants every student who lives in Iowa and wants to caucus in Iowa and is eligible to caucus in Iowa to do so," said her communications director, Howard Wolfson, in a recent statement.

As the top political columnist in the state, Yepsen clearly sees his role as a protector of the sanctity of the caucus process, which is relatively unguarded with few protections against organized fraud. But it becomes an issue of national concern when a major newspaper writer, or a presidential candidate, appears to be condemning efforts to get students to exercise their legal rights. The Iowa Public Interest Research Group, which works to motivate college students to vote, put out a statement Tuesday expressing justifiable outrage at the whole tenor of the discussion, especially now that it has been echoed by a candidate. "We're shocked that any national figure would advocate for youth disenfranchisement," the statement read. "This goes against the very grain of our democracy and the core values of our nation."

If any candidate's Iowa supporters bring in illegal, non-Iowans to the caucus, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But in the meantime, this whole controversy should serve as further motivation for Iowa's out-of-state students to come back early from Christmas vacation to caucus, regardless of whom they support. These students have the legal right to express their opinion. Yepsen and others can argue that the law needs to be changed, but those arguments should not keep anyone from exercising the fundamental duty of all American citizens.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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