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Iowa's biggest newspaper is calling for an audit of the Democratic caucuses. Here's why.

Iowa's Democratic caucuses can be chaos with votes tallied by head count.
Iowa's Democratic caucuses can be chaos with votes tallied by head count.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Though the national news media might be shifting attention to New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday, Sanders supporters can't forget about Iowa. And now they have an ally on their side: the state's influential Des Moines Register newspaper editorial board.

The newspaper published an editorial Wednesday calling for the Iowa Democratic Party to reevaluate its nearly 50-year-old traditions and bring more accountability to the system.

Once again the world is laughing at Iowa. Late-night comedians and social media mavens are having a field day with jokes about missing caucusgoers and coin flips.

That’s fine. We can take ribbing over our quirky process. But what we can’t stomach is even the whiff of impropriety or error.

What happened Monday night at the Democratic caucuses was a debacle, period. Democracy, particularly at the local party level, can be slow, messy and obscure. But the refusal to undergo scrutiny or allow for an appeal reeks of autocracy.

The Iowa Democratic Party must act quickly to assure the accuracy of the caucus results, beyond a shadow of a doubt.


Two-tenths of 1 percent separated Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. A caucus should not be confused with an election, but it’s worth noting that much larger margins trigger automatic recounts in other states.

The chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, Dr. Andy McGuire, maintained that the results are final and said she will not release the actual raw vote count — which has never been done in the history of the Iowa Democratic Party.

The current system has a lot of potential for error

The Iowa Democratic Party finally declared Hillary Clinton victor at 2:30 am Tuesday, after it took hours to find the votes from as many as 90 missing precincts. But Sanders is still calling it a "virtual tie" — his campaign went precinct by precinct to tally up the numbers themselves.

Contrary to Iowa's Republican caucuses, which vote by private paper ballot and determine the winner by popular vote, Iowa's Democrats hold a live event, where voters can change votes and ballots are tallied through head count. But the process doesn't end there. Head counts are converted to a proportional number of county convention delegates, which are then converted to "state delegate equivalents," which then determine the win.

Ultimately, this process means there is a lot of room for human error, as Sanders campaign aides found when they went precinct by precinct to review the numbers.

"It's not that we think anybody did anything intentionally, but human error happens," Rania Batrice, a Sanders spokesperson, told the Des Moines Register.

This convoluted process is one of the key differences in how Democrats count votes in a caucus rather than in a primary.

Drake University professor Dennis Goldford, who studies the Iowa caucuses, told the Des Moines Register, "The caucus system isn't built to bear the weight placed on it. There aren't even paper ballots (in the Democratic caucuses) to use for a recount in case something doesn't add up."

Reports of polling misconduct were rampant after Monday's caucus, with stories of precinct caucus chairs proceeding with incorrect counts and some precincts with voters but no one to lead the caucus.

Why accountability matters

To some Sanders supporters, the uncertainty about the Clinton win and the Iowa Democratic Party's refusal to release the raw votes sounded alarm bells that the vote was rigged toward establishment Democrats.

Without a transparent accountability system, they are simply left to theorize.

This isn't the first time the Iowa caucuses have come under scrutiny. In 2012, the uncertainty was on the Republicans' side when Rick Santorum took away Mitt Romney's win by a margin of 34 votes after a ballot recount.

Romney, like Sanders this year, called the results of the recount a "virtual tie," and the Republican party did not officiate a winner. After the recount, eight precincts' votes remained missing.

The Republican Party of Iowa conducted a full audit of its process after being unable to decisively declare a winner in 2012.

The Des Moines Register's editorial board thinks it's time for the Democratic Party to do the same.