Everyone is angry over the damn app.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential nominating caucuses turned into an international embarrassment last week when results from the closely watched Democratic contest were not released on caucus night. Iowa Democratic Party officials initially blamed the delay on a new mobile app used to report results.
Blame first fell to precinct leaders who couldn’t figure out how to use the reporting system. Then, everyone blamed the party and the app developer (ominously named Shadow) for glitches and technical failures.
Observers and participants were eager to believe the app was the culprit. It’s an easy scapegoat, playing on Americans’ anxiety about high-tech election tampering, and instilling an easy caricature of rural folks befuddled at newfangled gadgets.
But really, the app isn’t the problem.
The “reporting issues” at the center of the Iowa caucus debacle is nothing compared to what happened during the actual caucuses. This year, Democrats caucused under new rules meant to provide more detailed results, beyond the final delegate counts traditionally calculated on caucus night.
Reports from Democratic caucusgoers suggest the rules were poorly understood. Several people have supplied evidence to show preferences were misallocated, and many people say they left out of frustration as the process was bungled.
To be clear, precinct volunteers are not at fault for these debacles. They did their best to execute a badly designed system.
Understandably, some Iowans were frustrated with the national media and the presidential campaigns for tainting the process. As the aftermath of the caucuses drug out, journalists chided the lack of results, while some campaigns fueled speculation with their own internal tallies.
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The obsession with declaring a victor of the Iowa caucuses — winner-take-all for the “momentum,” if not the delegates — is wrongheaded, but also long-standing. We can hardly be surprised at TV anchors and campaign managers doing what they always do.
Even after caucuses were adjourned and the results were supposedly verified for release, inconsistencies persisted. In more than 100 precincts, the New York Times reported, results have been found to be inconsistent, missing data or incompatible with caucus math.
Even all this — botched rules and reporting from the Iowa Democratic Party, with oversight from the Democratic National Committee — doesn’t quite get to the underlying failures of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.
The real problems with the Iowa caucuses are not unique to this year’s process, but things we have known about for many years. Any political system that requires people to show up at one place on a specific day is fatally flawed.
Iowa Republicans have a much better process than Democrats — no realignment so every preference is counted, and there are no calculations for precinct leaders to do. Even that is failure-prone, as we learned when the Iowa GOP fumbled the narrow 2012 results, revoking a Mitt Romney victory and regifting it to Rick Santorum.
The whole system is inaccessible, because it was meant to be. Caucuses are designed to elevate the preferences of core party activists, not the general voting public.
For all its obvious faults, the American process is one of the most inclusive in the world. Throughout history and even still in many countries, nominating candidates is the work of party insiders, inaccessible to most of the populace. So, while we can be proud of some pieces of our political system, we must demand better.
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The fact that we use headcounts and scratch paper to nominate the leader of the most powerful country in world history would be laughable if it weren’t so depressing.
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