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The Democratic primary has a legitimacy problem

The Iowa results debacle has undermined faith in the entire primary process — and that’s really, really dangerous.

Supporters of Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on a gymnasium’s basketball court in Des Moines, Iowa, hold signs for their candidates.
Supporters of Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar prepare to caucus on February 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Iowa caucuses result delay is not a momentary screw-up, an excusable error being overhyped by journalists antsy for a story. It is a monumental error that has already damaged the fragile legitimacy of the 2020 democratic process — perhaps irreversibly.

This is not because the results themselves are likely to be doctored. We have little reason to believe they won’t be correct once they finally come out.

The issue is entirely one of perception. The complete and unexpected meltdown of the reporting system, including the failure of an app from a company literally named Shadow, and the opacity of the process have created the conditions for a breakdown in trust among voters. In the absence of definitive answers from party officials, conspiracy theories have filled the gap.

Angry Bernie Sanders supporters have flooded social media with dark musings about a stolen victory. The right and the Trump camp egg them on with charges of “rigged.” Prominent members of Congress have chimed in, casting doubt on the process and the eventual results.

And two of the Democratic campaigns have made things worse. Joe Biden’s camp has been vocal in their skepticism about the process, while Pete Buttigieg’s “victory speech” Monday night only fueled conspiracy theories.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders wait for his arrival in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one day before the Iowa caucuses.
Matthew Hatcher /Barcroft Media via Getty Images

“The timing for a debacle like this could not be worse,” election law expert Rick Hasen told my colleague Sean Illing. “If people lose trust in the process, the very basis of democracy is undermined.”

There are now serious questions about whether Democratic partisans will see the results as wholly legitimate — and not only in Iowa.

Our political class is fueling conspiracy theories, and that’s really dangerous

There are many ways to contribute to the erosion of the integrity of our voting process. A couple of the campaigns were guilty of them last night.

As concern mounted over the long delay reporting the results, Biden’s team issued a statement blasting “considerable flaws” and “acute failures” in the process, demanding a “full explanation” of what went wrong. Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said on CNN that “we have real concerns about the integrity of the election.”

There’s a pretty transparent strategic logic behind the Biden approach: Most unofficial counts, including some released by rival campaigns, showed him dramatically underperforming expectations. Attacking the process is a way of blunting the effect of seemingly bad results on their campaign’s fortunes — but it does end up dimming people’s perceptions of the integrity of the vote.

Buttigieg’s campaign went the other direction. Instead of fixating on the absence of a result, it went ahead and pretended there was one. In front of his supporters, Buttigieg declared, “We’re headed to New Hampshire victorious” — despite not a single vote being counted. The basis for this declaration, he said on Tuesday’s Morning Joe, was that “we were looking at the internal numbers that we had and beginning to realize that something extraordinary had happened.”

Many observers commented that Buttigieg essentially gave a victory speech, which only fed a baseless social media conspiracy theory that the app that the Iowa caucuses were using was rigged in his favor. This theory’s proponents point out that Shadow’s CEO was a Buttigieg supporter; the No. 1 Twitter hashtag nationally on Tuesday morning was #MayorCheat, typically paired with a suggestion that Sanders was robbed. There is zero evidence of any such conspiracy, and the paper safeguard built into the system makes them nearly impossible to credit, but that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories from flourishing.

While the Sanders campaign has steered clear of such rhetoric, high-profile Sanders supporters on Twitter, who already believed the 2016 election was stacked against them and that the DNC still has it out for their guy, have been flinging around conspiratorial language recklessly. This tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has endorsed Sanders and campaigned for him in Iowa, is one of the more egregious examples:

Naturally, Team Trump has been happy to stoke the fires. Two of Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., outright asserted that the process was rigged. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, suggested the same thing. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) went even further, actively attempting to stoke the “Bernie was robbed” conspiracy theories:

And this is all happening in a world where 2016 had already cast a cloud over the health of the American presidential election. Both the primary and the general that year were plagued by rhetoric of election rigging on all sides. Clinton partisans believe Russian interference on Trump’s behalf stole the election from their candidate. Sanders partisans remain convinced the DNC had it out for them. Trump claimed, with no basis, that Clinton benefited from millions of “illegal” votes.

The Iowa debacle isn’t happening in a vacuum. We’ve been primed to think the worst of our process, and what happened last night only feeds it.

Joe Biden leaves a campaign field office ahead of the Iowa caucuses on February 3, 2020.
Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One thing I’ve learned from covering many elections in struggling democracies is that faith in the electoral process is just that: faith. Very few citizens see firsthand that votes are counted correctly; they need to trust the process, to believe in the people administrating the vote tallies, in order to accept that the outcome is legitimate.

It’s easy for people to lose faith in this necessarily opaque process in a world where their preferred candidates and partisan figures are calling the results into doubt. People tend to have more emotional attachment to their political camps than to abstract faith in the integrity of the process; attacks on the process are thus likely to actually chip away at public faith in them. Once lost, trust is hard to regain — and democratic systems need this kind of trust in order to function properly, as the peaceful transfer of power depends heavily on people believing that the election was free and fair.

This is not to say that American democracy is now broken or that nobody trusts elections anymore. But in a world where the president is habitually casting doubt on the electoral process, where Sanders supporters have long looked askance at the DNC, and fears about foreign interference abound, the American process is at serious risk of a major loss in legitimacy. This Iowa situation likely pushed us closer to that nightmare: to getting to the conclusion of a campaign only to learn that half of the people who voted in it simply don’t believe the result.