Next week on Monday (2/3/2020), Gretchen Newman is making history as chairperson for the first-ever American Sign Language Caucus for the state of Iowa. About a year and a half ago, Newman discovered that the Iowa Democratic Party [IDP] was working on accessibility and one of their initial proposals was to do a virtual caucus. The idea was quickly vetoed over security concerns as it would have occurred through telephone lines only (Deaf community members would have participated via VRS, or video relay services). The next step was to determine whether community members with disabilities would participate in an all-inclusive accessibility group or have their own group. 

Newman applied to chair a satellite caucus site and although the IDP never received her application for some reason, they were able to reach out to her prior to the official announcement of approved caucus sites. Since Newman’s application involved a potential site that was not ADA-accessible, the IDP made efforts to see if Newman could get a room at an approved site with the Spanish-speaking caucus but it did not work out. 

Determined to keep looking, Newman was able to connect with Reyma McCoy McDeid, who is the current Director of Central Iowa Center for Independent Living. McDeid had already been approved to host an ADA-accessible caucus, and McDeid kindly offered Newman a room at her site. It was only about two and a half weeks ago that the IDP finally understood the Deaf community wanted their own caucus, with insistent efforts on Newman’s part. 

If you are wondering—not all states have caucuses, and most of them tend to have primary elections. The key difference between caucuses and primary elections would be the people who are in charge: the state’s political parties themselves run caucuses as private events, while local and state governments facilitate primary elections as public events. During presidential election years, the states of Iowa and New Hampshire are the first two states to participate in the political process (with the caucus and primary election, respectively). Monday is when Iowa begins the selection process and it is important to remember that this is not an overnight process; it takes many months to complete. 

A total of 99 caucuses were approved at 85 actual sites, as some caucuses are sharing the same sites. Even though the ASL caucus was never formally approved, it is technically the 100th caucus. 

What is a caucus, exactly? Here is a simple way to explain it. Think of it as a local meeting where registered voters discuss priorities and submit their votes for a specific candidate at the end of the meeting. Iowa’s selection process is extremely complicated so there are a few important things that attendees will need to know for Monday night’s caucus.

If you are an Iowan and you want to attend Monday’s caucus and you have not had a chance to meet the January 31 registration deadline, you can still contact Gretchen Newman. Newman can be reached at [email protected] (e-mail), 515-207-4996 (videophone), 515-865-6967 (text), or on Facebook through Messenger. The ASL caucus is a great opportunity to learn about candidates, debate issues, and have an honest conversation about who you would want to vote for and why. Nobody has to pick out a candidate in order to attend. “That is the FUN of the caucus but it hasn’t been fun for us because we haven’t had an accessible caucus!” Newman told Deaf Vee Journal in an interview. 

Newman also wanted to emphasize that even though the Iowa Democratic Party informed The Daily Moth “hearing people that are not ASL-fluent will be given the opportunity to attend this specific caucus if they wish to,” it is not happening. Newman points out that the ASL caucus was intended for the Deaf community to have full access to the selection process, and she plans to redirect attendees who are not fluent in ASL over to the other accessible caucus happening on-site. In case hearing attendees wish to stay at the ASL caucus, interpreters will be provided.

This was made possible with generous accommodations from the Iowa Democratic Party. Arrangements were made for interpreters at Newman’s training with their Executive Director, Kevin Geiken, to ensure that she is ready to chair the caucus as well as interpreters for Monday night’s caucus.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Other than the linked source above, this piece is based on an interview with Gretchen Newman. Deaf Vee Journal released Newman’s contact information with her explicit written permission.