I spent yesterday fielding calls and texts from my non-Iowa friends wanting to know “what’s going on over there!?” Let me try to describe the Iowa caucus process for you.
In our precinct, 225 people came into an empty clubhouse. Almost all of the people came at once, and during that time had to find their name and sign if they were on the printed voting roster or register to vote if they weren’t. The roster only contained registered Democrats, so if the person was registered Republican or Independent, they had to re-register. It always starts off messy.
Then people clustered around others supporting their preferred candidate. We took a hand vote to see which candidates had “viability” (15% of those in attendance). We recorded the hand counts, and people signed a “Presidential Preference Card”. We determined that three of the candidates did not reach viability so they “realigned” with another candidate – meaning that in caucus-like fashion they were wooed to come to join another candidate group. We took another hand count and collected the new cards. All this occurred while people are milling about – voters intermixed with candidate staff and observers – with everyone anxious to get out of there.
And at the end of the night, our hand count numbers were three off from the number of Presidential Preference cards that we collected which were a couple off from the number who signed in. There was no way to tell – in a reasonable amount of time – who signed in but did not turn in a card or possibly who may have filled out a card but did not sign in – or how the hand counts differed from the paper cards.
At the end of the day, what is supposed to matter is the delegate count and our minor variances did not affect the math for that. Convention delegates were elected and everyone seemingly left satisfied.
But to aid in transparency and satisfy the candidates’ and the media’s thirst for content, the Iowa Democratic Party promised that they would release three numbers this year: the numbers after round 1, numbers after round 2 and delegate count. Complicating this was a new online system that did not work as expected so instead of the 1,681 caucus sites reporting online, they were all trying to call the same phone number at the same time and the Party was definitely not prepared for that. As a result, the caucus results were not released on Monday – and maybe not even by the time you read this. I’m not sure how they will sort the whole thing out.
There were seven candidate groups to start our caucus; four viable ones by the end. That many variables multiplied by 1,600+ caucus sites, all run by volunteers, does not lend itself to precision. If people wanted a 100% tightly-aligned number, we should be running a primary with voting machines and not a caucus. A caucus is a personal, relational, messy process. It produces many positives as it directly engages people in debate and democracy, but it’s a mismatch to promise precision from an imprecise system.
Adding the extra layers of new reporting complexity on top of a crowded field that inherently made things more complicated was like pulling the wrong Jenga piece out of the tower – and it all fell down. Had we stayed with just delegate counts – that would have been easy to share via a quick call or text should the app fail — the news out of Iowa would have been about the candidates and not the process.
It’s great to fill in the details later, but take a lesson from this debacle and don’t promise them upfront or add complex systems to collect them. Share the broad strokes with timeliness and confidence and pour over the details when the time pressure passes.