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Monday’s Iowa caucuses should be the last

The Iowa caucuses are a terrible, anti-democratic disaster even when they do count the votes.

Lenora and Norman Iverson fill out their presidential preference cards during a Democratic party caucus in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

We still don’t know who won the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Early Tuesday morning, the state Democratic Party blamed a coding error in an app that was supposed to compile caucus results for this delay. Tens of thousands of voters spent hours in crowded rooms, and we still have only the vaguest idea what they decided.

The one good thing that can come from the disaster of Monday’s botched Iowa vote count is it may convince the national Democratic Party to end the caucuses once and for all.

The case for the Iowa caucuses is now weaker than it’s ever been — and it’s never been strong. Iowa is an unrepresentative state, and its caucuses impose an unconscionable burden on voters who wish to participate. Votes are counted in an absurd way, and the result can diverge significantly from the actual will of the people.

Here’s a fun fact about the Iowa caucuses — the overwhelming majority of caucus-goers must be at their caucus site at exactly 7 pm, or else they are disenfranchised.

Have to work a late shift? Disenfranchised. Your babysitter shows up late? Disenfranchised. Can’t afford a babysitter? Disenfranchised. Can’t find a parking spot near a crowded caucus site? Disenfranchised.

“Say I’m a guy who’s got to work for a living, and I’ve got kids,” then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said of the Iowa caucuses in 2000. “On a Saturday, is it easy for me to go cast a ballot and spend 15 minutes doing it, or do I have to sit in a caucus for eight hours?”

The problem for people who work, people who have children, or people who simply don’t have time to spend an entire evening standing around a high school gym, as Dean put it, is that “I can’t stand there and listen to everyone else’s opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world.”

Dean’s comments, in fairness, are a bit hyperbolic. An Iowa caucus-goer is more likely to spend two hours at a caucus site, rather than eight.

But the thrust of Dean’s comments are exactly right. Iowa makes it needlessly difficult to vote, and that needless difficulty disenfranchises parents, low-income people, people without control over their job schedules, and pretty much anyone who isn’t determined enough to sacrifice hours to an arcane and anti-democratic process.

Precinct 68 Iowa caucus voters seated in the Biden section hold up their first votes as they are counted at Drake University in Des Moines on February 3, 2020.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

Iowa is a homogenous state. More than 90 percent of Iowans are white, as opposed to about 77 percent of Americans as a whole, and about 61 percent of Democrats. It also has no major cities, despite the Democratic Party’s increasingly urban cast.

And then there’s the absurd method the caucus uses to count votes. That method is so complex that it defies any effort to summarize it, and it requires voters who hope to get their heads around it to understand concepts like “viability,” “state delegate equivalents,” and the difference between a county, district, state, and national convention.

Iowans who support a candidate who is unpopular in their neighborhood — even if that candidate is very popular in the state as a whole — must shift their vote to another candidate or be disenfranchised. The Democratic caucuses also effectively gave extra votes to people from rural areas, while punishing caucus-goers who live near colleges and universities. And there are no secret ballots at the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Much of the operation runs on peer pressure.

Iowa is extraordinarily protective of its caucuses, and of its special status as the first state to weigh in on every presidential race. Candidates who question its status typically don’t fare well: Dean was savaged by rival candidates and by the Iowa press when his 2000 attacks on the Iowa caucuses became public during his 2004 presidential campaign.

Caucuses, as opposed to primaries where voters cast an ordinary ballot in an ordinary election process, are a terrible way to choose candidates. And Iowa’s caucuses are among the worst.

You can’t put a Band-Aid over a gaping chest wound

State Democrats have taken some incremental steps to make the Iowa caucuses more democratic than they’ve been in the past. Beginning in 2016, for example, the party allowed groups of voters to apply to form “satellite caucuses” where voters who were unable to make it to a traditional caucus site could still have their vote counted.

The party also flirted with hosting “virtual caucuses” in 2020, which would allow Iowans to participate online. But these plans were scrapped due to security concerns.

Residents gather at an Iowa Democratic caucus in Des Moines on February 3, 2020.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

The satellite caucuses, meanwhile, remain a relatively minor feature on caucus day. On Monday, caucus-goers gathered in 1,679 precincts. Meanwhile, the party hosted only 87 satellite caucuses — and only 60 of those were in-state.

Satellite caucuses, in other words, only appear to have helped a small percentage of eligible Iowa Democratic voters. They may help voters who know they will be unable to attend a traditional caucus and can plan ahead to host a satellite caucus. But they do little for voters who have a last-minute work emergency, or who can’t find a babysitter, or who just get stuck in traffic on their way to the caucus.

The way Iowa counts votes is ridiculous

The Iowa caucuses are what would happen if Rube Goldberg were asked to design an electoral system — and to do it in a way that ensures that voters in some parts of the state wield vastly more power than others.

My colleague Andrew Prokop lays out the basics about how Iowa’s system works. In short, Iowa counts the votes in three different ways:

1) The pre-realignment vote total: This is the initial tally of how many people prefer each candidate at each of the more than 1,600 individual caucus sites (added together for a statewide total). Basically, it’s who got the most votes the first time around.

2) The final vote total: After the first tally, any supporters of a candidate who got less than a certain threshold of the vote (15 percent in most precincts) can shift their support to another candidate. Candidates who are below the viability threshold are eliminated as “nonviable,” and a new and final tally is taken. So this is who got the most votes after a reshuffling.

3) State delegate equivalents: The final vote total at each caucus site will then be used to assign each viable candidate a certain number of county delegates. Then those county delegate numbers will be weighted to estimate their “state delegate equivalents” (how many delegates each candidate will get at the Iowa state convention).

A few arbitrary features of this system are worth pointing out. The first is that it can cause wildly different outcomes for candidates with small differences in total votes.

Suppose that a particular caucus site has 400 caucus-goers and a total of five county delegates to dole out. That means that a candidate must hit 60 supporters to be “viable” and thus remain in the running for one or more delegates.

Now suppose that Amy Klobuchar wins exactly 60 votes at this caucus site, while Joe Biden wins only 59 votes. In this scenario, Klobuchar is likely to walk away with at least one county delegate (or 20 percent of the available delegates), while Biden will walk away with nothing — even though they were separated by only one vote.

Iowa’s system can also lead to weird rounding errors, where candidates with wildly divergent vote counts earn the same number of county delegates at a particular precinct.

The system also favors candidates with diffuse support throughout the state, and disadvantages candidates with concentrated support. Suppose, for example, that Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both won 35 percent of the total vote — but that Buttigieg won exactly 35 percent in every precinct while Sanders chalked up big victories in some caucuses while falling below the viability threshold in many others.

In this scenario, Buttigieg would walk away as the runaway winner, while Sanders would win significantly fewer state delegate equivalents — even though they both had the same number of supporters. Perhaps this aspect of the caucuses is a feature, if you think that the party should only nominate candidates who appear evenly to a broad swath of white Iowans. But it is very much at odds with the idea that every person’s vote should count equally.

Yet another problem is that state delegates are not allocated in a fair and equitable manner. As Prokop explains, each county is assigned a preset number of state delegates based on “how many votes its attendees cast for the Democratic nominees in the most recent gubernatorial and presidential race, averaged.” The purpose of this formula is to ensure that highly Republican counties with large populations but few Democratic voters do not have a disproportionate impact on the race.

But this formula also disadvantages some parts of the state, such as college campuses. As MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald wrote of this problem in 2016, “more than a quarter — 27 percent — of Sanders supporters come from just three counties of Iowa’s 99, according to the Register poll, each home to one of the state’s largest universities. But those three counties award only 12 percent of the total 1401 delegates at stake statewide.”

A more recent analysis of the 2020 caucus found that “it only takes 43 participants in tiny Fremont County to win a delegate from a caucus, but in Johnson and Story counties, which both host state universities, it takes more than 200. In Polk, home to Des Moines and the state’s largest county, the number is about 150.”

When the votes are finally counted in Iowa, in other words, there’s a high likelihood that the number of “state delegates equivalents” awarded to each candidate will bear only a loose resemblance to how Iowans actually voted.

The “winner” on caucus night may still lose

It’s also worth noting how indirect this entire process is. As the Nation’s John Nichols explains, voters in Iowa didn’t actually choose a presidential candidate. They didn’t even choose delegates to the Democratic National Convention who will eventually help choose a presidential candidate. Instead ... well, I’ll let Nichols summarize it:

The process of choosing the state’s 41 pledged delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention only begins this evening. The delegates chosen tonight will be precinct delegates to county conventions in March, where delegates are then chosen for congressional district conventions in April, where delegates are chosen for the state convention in June. That’s where the actual delegates to the convention in Milwaukee will be selected.

This lengthy process can be gamed by a campaign that has little popular support but that is good at infighting.

Consider what happened to Republicans in 2012. Republicans, to their credit, use a much simpler process in their Iowa caucuses. But that didn’t prevent a clever candidate from undercutting the will of Iowa’s Republican voters in 2012.

That year, Iowa voters chose former Sen. Rick Santorum as the winner of the Iowa caucuses, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in a close second. Yet the third-place finisher, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), wound up taking home 23 of the state’s 28 delegates to that year’s Republican National Convention.

The reason, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier explained, is that “the people who stuck around and get themselves picked to go to [the] state convention were overwhelmingly Paul supporters.”

Iowa’s process, in other words, can reward craftiness and bureaucratic endurance far more than it rewards popular support.

Pete Buttigieg campaigns with his husband on February 3, 2020.
Jeremy Hogan/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

It should go without saying that there is a better way to hold an election — the method used by the overwhelming majority of states. The state can simply pick a day to hold a primary, give voters a full day to cast ballots, and even allow voters who can’t make it on election day to vote early or absentee.

And in this system, every voter’s ballot will count exactly the same amount.


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