Dear America: Please Take the Keys Away From Iowa’s Political Drunks

by Alex Knepper

After investing nine figures of money, tens of thousands of hours of time, and endless resources of party talent, organization, and attention, the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucus is in Fyre Fest-style shambles, everyone is seething with anger, and the event is on track to turn out to have been a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.

The Iowa Democratic Party — not the ‘DNC’, which had nothing to do with this — has added a glowing new chapter to contemporary America’s growing list of examples of not really being able to do anything right anymore. So, we must congratulate the Democratic Party on its biggest screw-up since the Obamacare website rollout — wait, I mean since the Hillary Hindenburg — wait, I mean since Martha Coakley lost both a Senate seat and the governorship in Massachusetts — wait, I mean since they threw away their chances at the Senate in the Brett Kavanaugh battle — wait, I mean…

On the bright side, a majority of observers seem to be ready to finally take the keys away from these political drunks before they crash our electoral process again.

Let’s recount some of the reasons to abolish the Iowa caucuses:

1. It’s a caucus. Caucuses are horribly undemocratic, rendering it, by the nature of the way they are conducted, more difficult for single parents, evening-shift wage-workers, people with disabilities, the very old, those lacking adequate transportation, and others who can’t commit several hours in an evening to standing around in a sweaty gymnasium until bedtime. Caucuses moreover violate the sanctity of the secret ballot, forcing people to pick and defend their candidates of choice publicly — in front of their neighbors, family, and friends.

The discrepancy between caucus results and primary results is so vast that, in 2016, when North and South Dakota, two highly similar states demographically, held their contests on the same day — the North holding a caucus and the South holding a primary — Bernie Sanders won the caucus by a 40-point blowout and Hillary Clinton won the primary by a hair. When the results on the same day in highly similar states have a 40-point gap, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our methods of determining the popular will.

2. This is the third cycle in a row in which there’s been a significant screw-up: in 2012, the Iowa Republican Party initially wrongly called the contest for Mitt Romney, giving him a full head of steam moving into New Hampshire, which was already friendly territory for him and which gave him nearly 40% of the vote. But days later, the party rescinded its initial call and awarded the win to Rick Santorum, by a couple dozen votes. (Sample headline: Rick Santorum May Have Won Iowa, But Does It Even Matter?) Santorum would go on to win about a dozen more caucuses and primaries, but by then, the damage was already done; he was denied his victory speech and the fullness of the momentum to which he was entitled, and he ended up having to fight Newt Gingrich for weeks to claim the mantle of the last standing not-Romney alternative.

In 2016, we didn’t learn the result of the Democratic contest until the wee hours of the morning — and several delegates in tied-vote situations were determined by literally flipping a coin. Hillary Clinton would have won regardless of the results of the coin flips, but it still looks terrible when a candidate wins any delegates at all based on random chance.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party inexplicably used an in-house app designed just two months ago to report the results, which had been featuring bugs just a week ago. Election workers received inadequate training regarding how to use it, the app ended up malfunctioning, and the party had no backup plan to deal with nearly 1,700 precincts trying to call results in by telephone to a central body. Why they felt the need to use an app in the first place is mystifying; that they had no back-up plan is a mystery for some diviner or esotericist to discern.

Three strikes is enough, Iowa.

Image result for iowa caucuses"

3. The rules are strange and arbitrary. In a ham-fisted attempt to imitate the virtues of ranked-choice voting, candidates need to earn 15% of the vote in the first round of voting in each precinct to remain ‘viable’ for the real contest, the second round, at which point supporters of non-viable candidates are released to vote for another candidate instead. But the significance of the 15% threshold will vary dramatically based on the size of the field. In a two-person race or a three-person race, this threshold is fairly easy to meet. In a five-person race or a six-person race, this threshold can be maddening. If Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar win 14% of the vote in a precinct — just a hair shy of qualifying — but Pete Buttigieg wins 16% — just a hair shy of being disqualified — is it really more indicative of people’s true preferences if most of Biden and Klobuchar’s people move to Buttigieg in that case and Buttigieg ends up winning the precinct? Or, to put it another way: would it be any more or less representative of the true will of the people if the Buttigieg people were forced to move to Klobuchar, instead?

Moreover, if there is to be a viability threshold, why should both the first and second-round results be released? If the first round is merely a preliminary vote with no relevance to delegate apportionment, then what business do we have knowing what it was? And if the first-round results are to be released, why not just go with the first-round results as the results — like in a primary? If people kept re-voting until only two candidates remained — say, with a 20% viability threshold for the second round — that would be one thing. But they arbitrarily stop voting after the second round for no apparent reason.

4. The Republican Party of Iowa has chosen these three people as their most recent presidential selections: Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Gov. Mike Huckabee. I imagine nothing needs to be added to this point.

5. In 2004, the Democrats of Iowa elevated John Edwards, even then a transparent con man who made extravagant promises such as telling voters that when Democrats are in the White House, people in wheelchairs will get up and walk again — with a full third of the vote; in 2008, they still gave him a quarter of the vote. Thanks to Iowa, which elevated him to prominence as a serious national figure, this sociopathic charlatan ended up 18 electoral votes away from being ‘a heartbeat away from the presidency.’

6. Iowa has been getting to go first for half a century. Can we just give another state a chance to go first? Presumably the rationale behind letting Iowa go first is that it is a swing state, small enough geographically and population-wise for retail politicking to be possible, and representative of Midwestern voters (while New Hampshire is representative of coastal voters). But there are other small-enough states in which retail politicking can be accomplished: why not let Nevada go first? What about super-diverse and geographically small Maryland? Even Colorado would be a more diverse state than Iowa. Why not New Mexico? None of them seem obviously less suited for going first than Iowa.

The rationale behind caucuses is that they force candidates to compete in a variety of contexts and settings; the dynamics of caucuses give a bit of an extra say to the especially-enthusiastic and to the especially-committed, which can show us a different dimension of the will of the people than merely raw vote totals from warm bodies. Without caucuses, Hillary Clinton and not Barack Obama would have been the Democratic nominee in 2008, for instance; caucuses also kept Bernie Sanders in the game in 2016 and helped keep Mitt Romney on his toes in 2012. There is a case — not one to which I assent, but a legitimate case nonetheless — for their utility, when they are done right.

But the case against them is stronger. The Democratic Party already rolled back the number of caucuses relative to the last several rounds of voting. Let us pray that last night might finally put the last nail in the coffin of this archaic and undemocratic institution.

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