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How the Iowa caucus rule changes complicated this year’s count

The problems go beyond the app.

Jeff Erickson of Des Moines, precinct captain for Joe Biden, tries to persuade Tim Gannon to join his group on February 3, 2020.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Amid the unfolding debacle over the Iowa caucus results, there’s been a great deal of attention on a poorly performing app the state Democratic Party used.

But it’s also the case that rule changes for the caucuses this year seem to have delayed the count. “We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure said in a statement late Monday, in explaining why results were so long delayed.

Indeed, this is the first time Iowa Democrats committed to reporting and releasing three separate numbers from each of their more than 1,600 precinct caucuses: the initial vote total, the final vote total (after realignment, when poorly performing candidates are eliminated), and state delegate equivalents (an estimate of how many state delegates each candidate has won).

Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app to reporters on February 4, 2020.
Nati Harnik/AP

The change was intended to increase the caucuses’ transparency, but it instead seems to have spotlighted just how messy the local, volunteer-run event can be.

That’s because there are several steps involved in getting from initial vote total to the final vote total to the delegate count, and then to get all those reported from every caucus site. In each step, human error could come into play.

There is a paper trail from all these steps, thankfully — Democrats are not just dependent on numbers spit out of an app. But the paper trail presents other potential problems. Perhaps the numbers don’t properly add up from step to step, or they reveal that certain calculations or steps in the process contained errors. The paper trail also, of course, has to be properly secured.

The true extent of the problems remains unclear. But the Iowa caucuses were already on thin ice after controversies around their results in 2016. The Democratic Party has moved away from complex caucuses generally for its presidential nominating contests since then — with Iowa one of the few remaining holdouts. And after this year’s issues, it’s unclear whether Iowa will keep its status much longer.

Why Iowa Democrats changed their rules

In past Iowa Democratic caucuses, the state party never actually recorded or reported the number of attendees who supported each presidential candidate.

Instead, Democrats reported their results in terms of “state delegate equivalents.” Basically, each precinct caucus culminates in the allotment of county convention delegates to each candidate. The precinct chair would report those county delegate results to the state party. They’d look something like: 2 delegates for Candidate A, 1 for Candidate B.

The state party would then calculated an estimate of how many state delegates to which those results corresponded. The weighting depends on how much each county voted for the last Democratic presidential and gubernatorial candidate. So that result could look something like: .06 of a state delegate equivalent for Candidate A, .03 for Candidate B.

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

So when Barack Obama “won” the Iowa caucuses with 37.6 percent in 2008, that meant he won 37.6 percent of state delegate equivalents (940 of them, in total). And when Hillary Clinton “beat” Sanders 49.84 percent to 49.59 percent in the 2016 caucuses, those percentages were also of state delegate equivalents, not votes. Nobody knew how many actual votes each candidate got.

This practice proved to be controversial after Sanders’s narrow defeat in 2016. Sanders suspected he would have won in a “popular” vote of Iowa, if there was one (due to bigger turnout in college towns and other areas that wouldn’t be reflected in the delegate calculations).

“Did we win the popular vote? I don’t know, but as much information as possible should be made available,” Sanders said at the time.

Also that year, several claims of miscounted results spread on social media and in the press — many from Sanders supporters, who were complaining that Bernie did better in their precincts than the county delegate results reflected. And the problem was, no paper trail existed that could prove or disprove their accounts.

This time, the DNC made various rules changes to the nomination process, via its Unity Reform Commission, which was set up to include and respond to the concerns of both Clinton and Sanders supporters. The commission recommended that the caucuses record and report their vote totals for the first time.

Iowa Democrats adopted this change. This would reveal for the first time how many votes each candidate got and would create records of those votes that could be used for a recount.

Also, in an attempt to shorten the caucus gatherings (and therefore prevent people with other obligations from leaving prematurely or not showing up), Iowa Democrats streamlined the “realignment” process. That’s the part where attendees can switch their support from one candidate to another.

Under the new rules, supporters of candidates topping 15 percent at a precinct are locked in and can no longer realign. Then there’s only one round of realignment afterward (rather than several). The vote totals from both before and after realignment would be recorded.

All this seemed reasonable enough — indeed, the changes were hailed as wins for the caucuses’ transparency and accessibility. But the added sunlight may only reveal just how messy the caucus process can be.

There are now more opportunities for human error to be noticed

In broad strokes, the issue is that there are many points in this process where human error can come into play — and, now that three sets of results are reported, more opportunities for those errors to appear glaring.

For instance, there were multiple anecdotal reports of confusion and mistakes involving the new rules. As just one example, Todd Dorman of the Gazette reported from one precinct where Warren supporters were told the candidate was eliminated right away after falling one person short of clearing 15 percent in the first tally. (Per the rules, Warren backers still had the chance to make her viable by winning votes from other lower-performing candidates.)

Other reports spread about counts not lining up between the first and second tallies, and efforts at recounting to try to make those tallies line up.

Eventually, of course, precinct chairs had to report three sets of tallies in that now-infamous app. Still, though the app was apparently a major problem (as were delays on the phone line that was the backup system for reporting results), the silver lining was that precinct chairs kept paper records of both vote totals — or at least, that they were supposed to keep those records. (The state party has insisted the paper trail “is sound” and is trying to collect those paper records today.)

We don’t yet understand the full extent of the issues, but Iowa Democrats have said there were “inconsistencies” in the three results. And if you’re going to release three sets of results for the entire political world to go over with a fine-toothed comb, they’d better line up properly or people will notice.

Again, these are local volunteers administering these caucuses — they are not trained election officials. They’re tasked with implementing a complicated process.

There were bound to be mistakes; the only question was how many there would be. The day after the caucuses, we’re still waiting for the answer.