The Iowa Caucuses Should Be Doomed

Back in December 2011, I noted that influential members of Iowa’s Republican Party were so concerned that Ron Paul might win the caucuses by attracting Democrats and independents that they began warning voters that such a result could spell the end of Iowa’s special first-in-the-nation status. As it turned out, Ron Paul did win the caucuses, but that didn’t become clear until months later when the real delegates were selected at the party’s state convention. On caucus night, Romney was announced as the winner. More than a week later, that was revised and Rick Santorum was declared as the sort of/kind of winner. It turned out that they’d lost enough votes that they couldn’t be sure who had won.

Something similar happened on the Democratic side this time around, and the Des Moines Register is mortified. They’re calling for a full audit, which has so far been denied by the chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Dr. Andy McGuire.

What happened Monday night at the Democratic caucuses was a debacle, period. Democracy, particularly at the local party level, can be slow, messy and obscure. But the refusal to undergo scrutiny or allow for an appeal reeks of autocracy.

Here’s what they saw firsthand:

Too many accounts have arisen of inconsistent counts, untrained and overwhelmed volunteers, confused voters, cramped precinct locations, a lack of voter registration forms and other problems. Too many of us, including members of the Register editorial board who were observing caucuses, saw opportunities for error amid Monday night’s chaos.

As I’ve said, the Iowa caucuses are a fraud. And all this bellyaching is a waste of time because the results are basically an even split of the delegates regardless of who won any coin flips or whatever problems they had on the margins.

They can audit the results as the Sanders campaign is insisting they do, and I see no valid objection to that. But it won’t change anything except possibly which candidate they say “won” a flawed and ridiculous process. At the very most, an audit might result in the loss of one delegate for Clinton which would be assigned to Sanders instead. Sanders could get the same result from flipping one superdelegate from Clinton to himself. How much effort do we want to expend to try to find a different result in Iowa? The problems are of a type that preclude getting a final and definitive result.

The Register is flipping out because they don’t want to lose their first-in-the-nation status, but they should abandon their caucus system (and find some work around of New Hampshire’s first-primary law) if they want to maintain their special place in electing our presidential nominees.

I can only imagine what would happen if the state were winner-take-all. In that case, they never could have determined who won the Republican caucuses in 2012 or who won the Democratic caucuses on Monday night. The only reason this system is viable at all is because the results are proportional and huge mistakes don’t really have any meaningful effect. For practical purposes, it matters so little who “won” that it’s not worth fighting over.

Except, it cost Rick Santorum that he wasn’t seen as the winner in Iowa until after New Hampshire had voted. And it might be costing Sanders that he didn’t get declared the “winner.” That’s why this process is a fraud. It only matters in terms of who gets to say they won. And they can’t even get that part right.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.