Impact of the Iowa Caucus on our elections

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, February 19th, 2020 at 8:00 PM

Generally, the Democratic National Committee determines the rules for caucuses nationwide. During the Democratic National Convention, the delegates determined by the caucuses and primaries are confirmed and bound to support their presidential candidate of choice in the Electoral College, though there have been rare defectors. A House Democratic Caucus decides the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. 

The Republican Party has similar meetings, called the Republican National Convention and the House Republican Conference. 

Instead of primary elections, some states hold their own caucuses. Citizens decide amongst themselves which presidential candidate they want their delegates to vote for at the National Convention. 

Iowa is one such state. Iowa holds public caucuses wherein citizens vote locally on who they want to be the Democratic presidential candidate and to determine how many of the state’s delegates will support that candidate. In this sense, it is akin to the primary elections held in other states, as civilians are essentially voting on the nomination. Unlike the solitary, ballot-based primary elections, though, Iowa caucuses mimic the Democratic Caucus in that Democrats meet to discuss their options and vote. The voting blocks participating in Iowa caucuses are referred to as “precincts.”

Citizens meet at a specific location in each precinct and debate. Each room is divided up, with each section representing a presidential candidate. Voters sit/stand in the area that corresponds with their choice and try to convince undecided voters to join them, along with encouraging their opposition to defect to their side. 

The results of this are recorded thrice throughout the day, then reported to the next level of the caucuses. Of the process, Dr. Bridget Jeffery, Edinboro University political science professor, said, “If one person’s counting is off, an inaccurate count could make a huge difference for presidential candidates.” 

Candidates need at least 15% of the total vote in each precinct to retain delegates. As candidates drop out, the constituents can strengthen other campaigns. 

Historically, these caucuses have been lauded as a truly democratic event because citizens, not their elected representatives, determine who their delegates will represent in the Electoral College. This year, the Iowa caucus was an even more highly-anticipated event, as the state rolled out a smartphone app, IowaReporter, specifically for recording votes. Unfortunately, this reliance on technology was catastrophic. 

Early on— as in hours before the caucuses began on Feb. 3 —  the app proved buggy and ineffective. Before and after the caucuses began, pleas for help with the freezing and crashing of the app went directly to a single customer service representative who did not respond to all the calls and emails. 

Eventually, volunteer precinct leaders were told by higher-ups to manually record the votes instead of using the app. The volunteers — housed in a secure room dubbed the “boiler room,” and operating secure computers — found that they needed a code from their smartphones to unlock the app and collect data. Smartphones they had been told to leave outside of the boiler room. 

According to The New York Times, “Volunteers resorted to passing around a spare iPad to log into the system. Melissa Watson, the state party’s chief financial officer, who was in charge of the boiler room, did not know how to operate a Google spreadsheet application used to input data, Democratic officials later acknowledged.” 

Eventually, the precinct leaders called their underlings across the state to task them with sending photos of their handwritten results to secure email addresses. The Times investigation found the email had been unmonitored, and over 700 of the emails went unread. As the fiasco unfolded, Ars Technica reported that users on 4chan posted the hotline number for the election and encouraged each other to jam the Iowa Democrat phone lines to further the chaos. 

After that, the entire caucus crumbled swiftly. Human error and hubris impeded democracy as votes were miscounted and mismanaged. Campaign leaders for presidential candidates waited hours after the deadline for results that remain far from certain. The Times reported “inconsistencies in the reported data for at least one in six of the state’s precincts.” They also wrote, “Errors occurred at every stage of the tabulation process: in recording votes, in calculating and awarding delegates, and in entering the data into the state party’s database.” 

According to their analysis, “at least 10% of precincts appeared to have improperly allocated their delegates.”

IowaReporter was developed by a company called Shadow, which was contracted by the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Troy Price, in the Fall of 2019 — a short window for developing a secure, customized, interactive data collection app that would be used statewide. Precious information was required to be collected and accurately tallied: delegate seats are distributed based on equations regarding the votes tallied at the local level, the county level, the district level, and finally, the state level. “Hundreds of state delegate equivalents, the metric the party uses to determine delegates for the national convention, were at stake in these precincts,” said The New York Times.

While Republicans revel in this apparent failure of the democratic party, serious questions have been raised by Democrats about the efficiency of the electoral system and whether Iowa should be the first primary election in the race. A week after the caucuses, ARS Technica reported the results as “still in dispute.” Furthermore, the Associated Press had still not declared a winner and the Sanders campaign was seeking a recanvas of some precincts. Pete Buttigieg has since been declared the winner, with a lead over Bernie Sanders totaling 1/10th of a percentage point. 

Further investigation by The Times found that, of the 10% of precincts whose results were mishandled, problems included: “recorded votes did not tally up,” “candidates without enough support won delegates,” “too many delegates awarded,” “delegates calculated improperly” and “data entry mistakes.” A review of the 1,678 precincts in Iowa shattered the illusion of a fair election. 

“There is no way to know how many of these errors occurred without a full recanvas of every precinct worksheet,” wrote The New York Times.

On caucus day, demands by frustrated campaign leaders to, at the bare minimum, receive the counts from the local-level caucuses (an oddity, as the usual count released is statewide) went unmet. Jeff Weaver, identified by The Times as Sanders’ closest advisor, said that he told Price: “You always had to calculate these numbers, all we’re asking is that you report them for the first time. If you haven’t been calculating these numbers all along, it’s been a fraud for 100 years.” Price promptly hung up. He has since resigned from his position as head of the Iowa Democratic Party and been replaced by Interim Director Mark Smith. 

Edinboro’s Jeffery has her own doubts about the veracity of the Iowa Caucus. 

“I think the Iowa Republicans got it wrong in 2012 — [they] said Romney won the state, but it was really former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. There are probably several accounts of that problem,” she stated. 

I’m inclined to agree with Jeffery that mistakes have been made in Iowa’s past. The recent caucus likely exemplifies a recurring issue. The theory of the current caucus system is a sound one: citizens can debate the best choice and convince others to support their candidate, as opposed to the sterilized, discussion-less primary process. 

Caucuses also remove the possibility of a “wasted vote”; when a candidate doesn’t reach the required amount of votes in a precinct (at least 15%) voters move to support their second choice, then their third if applicable, and so on. However, the point is moot if votes aren’t properly counted. 

I do believe a recanvas of questionable precincts should be held. Further, in the future, the caucus process should be organized to the point of tedium and vetted heavily. It should be perfected, not abolished. Though the mistakes of party leaders have been investigated and demonized, the grassroots efforts of the many Iowa Democrats that volunteered for their candidates should be scrutinized and applauded.

The Associated Press released the results of the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 11. Pete Buttigieg received the most delegates (13), closely followed by Bernie Sanders (12). The two top candidates are separated by 0.1% of the vote, a fact that prompts me to support a recanvas of Iowa; how can we be sure of Buttigieg’s victory with so many precincts in question? The short answer is that we can’t. 

Elizabeth Warren received eight delegates and Joe Biden followed her with six. As the primaries continue, it will be interesting to see how other states handle their caucuses in the wake of the Iowa disaster. Nevada’s Democratic Caucus takes place Feb. 22, and I am eager to see how their volunteer efforts and overall results differ from Iowa’s. Currently, 64 delegates have been declared; Buttigieg leads with 22, closely followed by Sanders at 21. 

Future primaries and caucuses will determine who will battle Donald Trump for the Oval Office in November. 

Tags: iowa caucus

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