Why Is It So Hard to Count Votes in the Iowa Caucus?

So apparently Santorum did win the Iowa caucus.  Maybe.  Eight precincts’ numbers can’t be certified.  Justin Wolfers tweets:

Iowa, you are a joke: GOP finds errors in caucus results from 131 precincts, has no count for 8.

I attended only one caucus meeting out of the hundreds across Iowa.  But let me use that to explain why it’s entirely possible that out of about 122,000 votes, several hundred are wrong or cannot be certified.

At the caucus I attended—in Altoona—this is how people voted:

And this is the process by which those ballots were counted:

It’s not a high-tech operation.  Nor does it need to be, since getting the caucus vote margin right down to every last vote isn’t really necessary.  After all, the caucus vote doesn’t directly determine the number of Iowa delegates that the candidates will receive.   Even if the caucus vote did determine delegates, no voting technology is going to make the process perfect.  In fact, paper ballots and human counting might even be more accurate than more sophisticated kinds of voting technology.

And even if, as Jon Bernstein notes, the real importance of the caucus result is how it’s evaluated by media and by party leaders, I still don’t think that the 2012 “Iowa recount” matters.  Maybe Santorum would have gotten a bit more momentum and maybe Romney would have faced more skeptical stories going into New Hampshire.  But Romney was still going to win New Hampshire.  And I doubt the other candidates would have dropped out had Santorum won by 34 votes instead of losing by 8.   We’d still be looking at a Romney nomination.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.