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IOWA CAUCUS: Problematic, but No Need to Panic

It’s obvious something went wrong in Iowa last night. But it would be wrong to hit the panic button. There were even some bright spots amidst the momentary madness.

The political world circles the Iowa caucus on the calendar as the launch date of the presidential campaign. Thousands of stories and millions of eyes have been focused for weeks on those 1,765 precincts where neighbors gather to publicly support candidates for nomination and then to convince their neighbors to join their side when their first choices are deemed not viable. It’s also a preview of the rest of the nominating contests and the main event this fall. What we saw last night has a lot of people concerned.

Three big things went wrong in Iowa: results reporting issues, a malicious information campaign, and incentivized commentary that misses the point. For the first of these problems, positive steps were being taken to mitigate problems and to preserve confidence. With respect to the commentary and the impact it has on the voting public’s confidence, we have nine months to make it better.

First, the most glaring problem is that we do not have initial results showing who won the caucus. Caucuses are complicated and reporting has been an issue in prior years. This time, the Democratic Party made the process even more complicated by attempting to provide more data during its results reporting to be fully transparent. And it experienced technical malfunctions and phone bottlenecks during the tallying process. During a regular election, no state has absolutely final results on election night. It. Does. Not. Happen. That. Way. We do, however, usually have an initial count at some point that evening. What does Iowa’s difficulty in reporting results mean for the rest of the nominating process?

Not much. Most states use primary elections for their nominating contests. Importantly, the Iowa caucuses are not run by election administrators, who have no role at all in this strictly party activity. For primary elections, like the ones that will dominate the next seven weeks, election officials will be in control using the normal voting and counting procedures. It does not mean that results reporting will not be delayed in some precincts or counties, but the confusion we are seeing right now statewide in Iowa is unlikely to be repeated as most states allow local jurisdictions to report results without relying on one centralized system. On the bright side, no major media outlet made a “call” of who won the caucus only to retract it. That caution was warranted and good to see.

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It’s obvious something went wrong in Iowa. But it would be wrong to hit the panic button.
Matt Weil, BPC's Director of the Elections Project
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Second, an outside group attempted to sow disinformation shortly before caucusing began in an attempt to claim the voting would be unfair and potentially fraudulent. I expect this will occur throughout the 2020 election cycle. Just about nine hours before the caucus events began in Iowa yesterday a fringe conservative group used data that has been publicly available for months to blast a breaking news tweet: voter rolls were inflated in Iowa. They tweeted their report to thousands of followers, who dutifully retweeted and liked it. The underlying implication is that registration issues are proof of fraud and simply another reason not to trust voting.

The group did not stumble on something new. In fact, if you take hard data on total registration from official government reports as your numerator, then select estimates on citizen voting age population from other sources as your denominator, you can absolutely “show” that some counties have more than 100% of their residents registered to vote. Of course, you will be butchering the data and misrepresenting what is real.

Don’t take my word for it. Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, pushed back forcefully on this attempt to undermine confidence. Within three hours, he tweeted that “[o]fficial data compiled by the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, as well as the @uscensusbureau shows this information is false.” It didn’t stop the initial stories from circulating, but it was a great first test of the National Association of Secretaries of State’s #TrustedInfo2020 campaign, which directs people to the best sources of information in the heat of the moment. We need more amplification of these trusted officials who understand American elections, not those who undermine it for their own gain. Secretary Pate deserves a lot of credit for his quick response.

The Iowa caucuses are just the beginning of the process. Considering how we hope an election is conducted, a lot went wrong last night. But there were glimmers of responsible individuals stepping up and doing the right thing.
Matt Weil, BPC's Director of the Elections Project

Third, the media, pundits, and candidates (and their surrogates) provided uninformed commentary that is itself delegitimizing, which only serves to contribute to distrust in the elections. There are a lot of incentives for people to undermine the voting process. They use any hiccups in the voting process to throw the baby out with the bath water, even if what they are saying has very little to do with the real issues. For example, high profile individuals have already used their megaphones to claim that our process cannot produce accurate outcomes, that we should use a certain type of voting system, that we should count ballots a different way, and more. This commentary is the hardest to combat because many Americans trust these voices. I have no great bright spots in the Twitterverse or on cable to point to as evidence that some commentary was more cautious and evidence-based than others. Here we have much work to do.

The Iowa caucuses are just the beginning of the process. Considering how we hope an election is conducted, a lot went wrong last night. But there were glimmers of responsible individuals stepping up and doing the right thing. That can be hard to replicate, though, when voting is happening simultaneously in many states. Last night it was only Iowans voting. On March 3, 15 states will have primaries. Another 12 states will vote during the following two weeks. Little issues will get magnified and fewer will be focused enough to push back on false narratives everywhere.  It all leads up to Election Day – 273 days from today – when every American should be participating. Election officials must learn from last night as we begin the sprint to the finish.