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Iowa and Why America Must Abolish Caucuses

The Iowa Caucus is always a spectacle. Pollsters, journalists, pundits, and voters alike watch it because the results provide a strong indication as to who will win their party’s nomination, particularly on the Democratic side: the last four candidates that won Iowa went on to become the party’s nominee. This year, however, the Iowa Caucus was a complete debacle. Caucuses, unnecessarily complex electoral mechanisms that date back to the 1800s, are poorly understood by the average American. 

Prior to 1907 all American elections were decided via caucus. Iowa tried switching to a primary system in 1916, but returned to caucuses due to the primary’s higher costs and lower participation rate. Today, however, this characterization is far more appropriately applied to caucuses than primaries. In 2016 the Iowa Caucus had a turnout rate of about 15.7 percent, while just a few days later the New Hampshire primaries saw a turnout of 52.4 percent. Low turnout is not the only problem with the caucus system, which brings with it a myriad of issues that warrant a serious reassessment of the continued use of this archaic system. In aggregate, these problems provide an overwhelming argument for a complete, nationwide transition to primaries for which no serious defense of the caucuses can stand. This year’s New Hampshire primary, which took place on February 11, was extremely simple and involved no apparent errors whatsoever. The 2020 Iowa Caucus, however, was the complete opposite. 

Beyond issues of physical accessibility and the several hours it typically takes to caucus every four years, much of what made this year’s caucus a mess had to do with the inability of the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) to count and allocate votes in a way that met the transparency standards progressives fought for in the wake of the 2016 caucus. As a result, the Iowa Democratic Party has released the popular vote tally for the first time ever.

Before this change, the IDP published only the results of the highly antidemocratic delegate equivalent system. Iowans vote once for their first choice nominee and a second time if their candidate does not reach the 15 percent threshold. Such a barrier in receiving overall votes is completely redundant and meaningless. The only argument in favor of this threshold,winnowing candidates who do not have enough state-wide support, is already satisfied by the first round delegate vote. The precinct-wide threshold distorts the final results by adding a large degree of luck to receiving delegates. After captains tally this vote, they allocate a predetermined number of total state-equivalent delegates to each candidate. In the case of a tie, captains flip coins to determine who the extra delegate goes to.

However, problems in this year’s Iowa Caucus exceeded the scope of the vote allocation itself. This year the DNC decided to make use of a new app by Shadow Inc., called “Shadow,” in order to record the results of each precinct. Shadow was developed in just two months and had never been tested at a statewide scale. On caucus night, various errors caused the app to report only partial results and prevent precinct chairs from signing in. Both complications are believed to have delayed results by several hours. Even more concerning, the CEO of Shadow is a former Hillary 2016 campaign staffer, and the CEO of Shadow’s parent company Acronym is the wife of a senior strategist to Pete Buttigieg. All of this exposes issues with both voting technology and choices made by the Democratic with respect to result integrity.

Although the IDP finalized and publicized results within several hours of the 2016 caucuses, in this year’s caucus only 62 percent of the full results were reported for about 24 hours. Full results came out only after more than three days of waiting. They showed Pete Buttigieg leading Bernie Sanders by just 1.5 state delegate equivalents, 0.1 percent of the vote. For the first time, the Associated Press was unable to declare a winner in Iowa due to election irregularities and evidence of large-scale counting errors, and DNC chair Tom Perez has called for a recanvass of results. According to the New York Times, about 10 percent of precincts “appear to have mistakes in their results,” ranging from misapplying delegate-awarding rules, awarding delegates to the wrong candidates, and recording tallies that were mathematically impossible. In fact, Dallas County reported 254 people in the second alignment but only 204 in the first alignment, an impossible difference because no one is allowed to enter the precinct once the doors close and the caucuses begin. Again, the caucus system proves to be overly complex and difficult to administer without error.

Despite losing the state delegate equivalent (SDE) count, Bernie Sanders won the popular vote in both the first and final alignment in the state by more than 6,000 and 2,500 votes, respectively. To contextualize these numbers, Bernie led Pete Buttigieg in the first alignment 43,728 votes to 37,611 votes, and in the second alignment Bernie won again with 45,896 to Buttigieg’s 43,316. The reason it is possible for a candidate to win both popular votes by such significant margins but nonetheless lose the SDE count is because Iowa’s popular vote to SDE conversion system is its own version of the electoral college. Voters in rural areas, who generally tend to lean more conservative, were weighted more heavily than voters in urban areas. Not only is this system extremely anti-democratic, but it also lacks the poor justification about respect for individual state rights that defenders of the electoral college make. Iowa’s individual districts are in no way semiautonomous in any form similar to the way states are in relation to the federal government.

Over the past few years, former caucus states have begun switching to primary systems. Washington, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Nebraska have all recently switched to primaries, while Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kentucky (only for Republicans), American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam continue to hold them. States that have transitioned have since largely run primaries devoid of error and have not needed to deal with the controversies Iowa now faces. If the US is to improve the efficiency, integrity, and democracy of their electoral system, its major parties must transition towards a full primary system and completely do away with caucuses as soon as possible.

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