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“No matter what, there will be persistent doubts about how this process was carried out”

An expert explains how the Iowa debacle underscores the great danger of the 2020 election.

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

The 2020 Iowa caucuses have been grossly mismanaged, and it’s an absolute disaster for our election process.

As of now, none of the precinct’s votes have been publicly reported by the state party; by contrast, all of the state’s delegates had already been awarded at this point in 2016. So far, all we know is that the party is attributing the delay to “coding” problems with a new app used to collect and report the results.

I spoke with Richard Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine and the author of a new book called Election Meltdown, about last night’s events and their repercussions for 2020. I had actually spoken with Hasen last week to discuss his book, which lays out what he considers the major threats to our election system, including two in particular: incompetent election administrators and an erosion of trust in the voting process.

The debacle in Iowa is more or less exactly what Hasen had in mind, and indeed it’s actually worse because of the peculiar format of the Iowa caucuses. Even more worrisome, the confusion we’re seeing now could throw doubt on the entire process, something Hasen says is extremely dangerous in a democratic system.

Hasen talked about why what happened in Iowa is so bad for democratic legitimacy, and why he thinks this is just the beginning of a much larger problem. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What’s your reaction to the fiasco in Iowa last night?

Rick Hasen

I can’t say it’s a tremendous surprise. Not only did they change the rules, they used this new app for the first time that hasn’t been properly tested. And just as you wouldn’t premiere your new play on Broadway without rehearsing, that’s what should’ve happened here, and it didn’t.

Sean Illing

You’ve identified “incompetent election administrators” as a major threat to election integrity. Is what we’re seeing now exactly what you had in mind?

Rick Hasen

Well, almost. What’s different here is that it’s even worse because it’s not run by professionals. It’s run by the Iowa Democratic Party, and that only increases the chances of incompetent management. When you talk about caucuses and the conventions, these tend to be run by the parties, as opposed to primaries, which are ordinarily run by government officials. It’s yet another reason why we should kill the caucus.

Sean Illing

Is this the weakest link in our election process right now?

Rick Hasen

I think so, but it’s not incompetence in a vacuum. It is incompetence surrounded by a sea of misinformation and bad actors who try to hijack the situation for political gain. For instance, we saw Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, calling the system “rigged” with all kinds of misinformation and conspiracy theories already floating around. You combine all this in such a volatile atmosphere and we’re in very hazardous terrain.

Sean Illing

Should we expect more of this rhetoric from Republicans in particular?

Rick Hasen

Absolutely. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some of the Democratic candidates complaining about how unfair or screwed up the process in Iowa was as well, which is of course true. We’re definitely going to need assurances that the vote was actually conducted fairly, but no matter what, there will be persistent doubts about how this process was carried out.

Sean Illing

Well, candidates are already complaining or prematurely declaring victory, and others will surely cast doubt on the results in any case. How dangerous is that?

Rick Hasen

The real winner is the person who finishes fourth or fifth, right? They can just say the whole process has an asterisk next to it. But to answer your question, it’s extremely dangerous to have ambiguity about election results. You want a clear winner. That’s what a system is designed to produce.

Sean Illing

One of your main arguments in the book is that public trust in the election process is crucial in a democracy. Why is that?

Rick Hasen

Because we take for granted the idea that our votes are going to be fairly counted, that people are going to accept election results. But these are just assumptions. If people lose trust in the process, the very basis of democracy is undermined.

Sean Illing

And I assume that problem is only intensified in a hyper-polarized environment like the one we’re in now.

Rick Hasen

Unquestionably. The timing for a debacle like this could not be worse.

Sean Illing

In the book, you talk about “dirty tricks” and “foreign interference” designed to erode confidence in the process, but this sort of mismanagement seems to undercut the need for foreign interference. Should we be more concerned about incompetence than foreign encroachments?

Rick Hasen

It’s an “and” not an “or” because the dirty tricks from foreign actors feed on the incompetence of our own election administrators. These things work together synergistically to undermine our system. And what I mean by that is that these outside actors will find our vulnerabilities or weaknesses and exploit them in order to make us even less confident in the entire process.

Sean Illing

How serious is our democratic legitimacy problem moving forward? Is Iowa just the beginning?

Rick Hasen

Iowa is just the beginning, unfortunately. This is a very serious problem that we need to pay close attention to right now. The best we can do is take whatever steps we can to try and minimize the chances of election meltdown before November. But I would expect more complications and incompetence down the road.

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