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Record Turnout Expected To Strain Iowa Caucus Sites

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And we're going to stay for a moment in Iowa, where school cafeterias and church basements will soon fill up with caucus-goers, as is the case in every presidential election cycle. On Monday, Iowa Democrats are expecting a record turnout as they kick off the process of choosing a nominee to run against President Trump. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports that could push some caucus sites to their limit.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: There was a moment on caucus night of 2016 when Tom Carsner started to panic.

TOM CARSNER: I was doing pretty good until I walked out the door (laughter) and saw the line going all the way to the Statue of Liberty. Then I said, oh - (laughter) and maybe a few other words.

PAYNE: Castner was in charge of Precinct 17 at City High School in Iowa City, and the line of people waiting to get into their caucus site stretched out the door and down the hill some 500 feet away.

CARSNER: Well, like, we had 935 people, the largest in the state.

PAYNE: And this year, local leaders are expecting even more people.

CARSNER: It may be hard to get up there.

PAYNE: Carsner and a few other caucus night volunteers are doing a walkthrough of the school. They're trying to picture what a thousand Democrats will look like Packed into an auditorium that seats 734.

CARSNER: The basic idea is to have Sanders on one side, Warren on the other side, and then Buttigieg perhaps on the stage.

PAYNE: There's some nervous joking about the fire code and an extended debate about which doors to lock to keep traffic moving in the right direction because in places like Iowa City, in the state's most Democratic county, record turnout is becoming a logistical issue, like it was in 2004.

JOHN DEETH: We ran out of everything. We ran out of voter registrations. We ran out of sign-in sheets.

PAYNE: John Deeth is in charge of coordinating all the caucus sites here in Johnson County.

DEETH: I never saw the pizza box that people supposedly signed in on, but I did get paper towels back with people signed in.

PAYNE: Since then, Deeth says they've learned to bring even more voter registration forms and recruit more volunteers. But he says what they can't do in the largest urban precincts is make the rooms bigger. For many rural parts of the state, the caucuses are still seen as one of the best ways to get Iowans involved in politics, but not necessarily in Iowa City.

DEETH: When you're managing a thousand people, you're not recruiting people. Sometimes, in fact, you're driving people away. They take a look, see how chaotic it is and decide they don't want anything to do with it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: People coming through that door...

PAYNE: Back at City High, volunteers are still arguing about which doors to direct people through because there's no absentee option for the Iowa caucuses. People have to physically show up, and that's why Anne-Marie Taylor loves it. She'll be running this precinct for the first time on Monday.

ANNE-MARIE TAYLOR: We'll have it all. We'll get it all sort of pulled together. As long as we're grabbing space from wherever we can, I think that's the most important thing.

PAYNE: She'll find out on Monday night if they pulled it off. For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.