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Trail Mix: A Crash Course on How a Caucus Works

As everyone has already reported everywhere, the Iowa Caucus devolved into yet another hot mess. The delegate allocations don’t always reflect what counts as the “popular vote”. The “popular vote” itself is suspect, as most voters couldn’t or wouldn’t spend a long Monday night trapped in a room to argue politics with their neighbors. And of course, it’s taken so long for our friends in the national press corps to declare a winner.

Considering how often this happens, why is anyone still shocked?

Another Iowa update, and an explanation of why their counting has taken so long
Photo by Andrew Davey

As of this morning and with 97% of precincts reporting in Iowa, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders holds a 26.5%-25% lead over former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the post-realignment preference card count that’s being treated as the default “popular vote”. And in the “state delegate equivalent” count that will determine the final allocation of DNC delegates, Buttigieg now holds a mere three delegate lead (or 26.2%-26.1%) over Sanders.

The remaining precincts to be included in the final counts all appear to be a collection of satellite caucus sites where Sanders scored landslide victories over everyone else, but we don’t know total turnout yet, so the final delegate count remains a total cliffhanger. And when we factor in the errors in the counts that various internet sleuths have already found, there’s even more uncertainty lingering in Iowa.

Why? It’s actually quite simple: Humans are human, and that means there will be errors, mistakes, and even good ol’-fashioned f–k-up’s. And because we’re relying on a team of overworked party staff and overwhelmed volunteers instead of the larger crew of trained experts and public servants who oversee real elections, it’s much harder for us to obtain a fast and accurate assessment of what really happened (and yes, who really won which count).

No, there’s really no conspiracy.
Photo by Andrew Davey

To better explain why caucuses are so error-prone, I need to take you back to 2016. In the wake of our Nevada Caucus, I collected reports of all sorts of strange goings-on. At one precinct, the chair apparently asked someone to switch to another candidate after the initial/viability count (which is not allowed under caucus rules). At another, the chair went home without calling the results into the state party. And at another, it was hard for the chair to make an accurate count with a small group of people threatening to leave (and ultimately doing just that).

And all of this is on top of what I witnessed at my local caucus site four years ago: Staffers rushed from problem area to problem area to “put out fires”. Volunteers filled in as many gaps as they could, but new gaps appeared as people waited in line to get signed in. And when the precinct chair finally showed up to get my neighborhood’s precinct meeting started, the Clinton and Sanders groups had already begun to prepare a vote to elect a new precinct chair.

For all the conspiracy theories that would later materialize about Nevada Democrats’ 2016 caucus-to-convention hot mess express, the fact of the matter is that there was never any plot to “rig the system” against one candidate. Rather, it was simply the matter of staff and volunteers struggling to process thousands of people at sites across the state… Along with a party that made the ultimate mistake of copying and pasting together the same caucus-to-convention plan that wreaked so much havoc in 2008.

Yes, caucuses are really messy AF.
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we noted 11 months ago, the Nevada State Democratic Party has made some changes to the caucus-to-convention process that might (keyword: might) result in real improvements. For one, all state party and DNC delegate counts will be determined by the caucus results, so there’s no longer any risk of any one group misusing the county and state party conventions to nullify those caucus results. And in a move that’s garnered far more attention, this year’s caucus will be the first ever to offer in-person early voting (though it still won’t be as widely available as early voting for actual Nevada elections) and preference cards in more than two languages (so far: English, Spanish, and Tagalog).

However, many of the same problems from past Nevada Caucuses and this year’s Iowa s–tshow persist. For one, like Iowa Democrats, Nevada Democrats deliberately give greater weight to precincts in rural counties than urban. This didn’t give anyone a distinct advantage in 2016, but it did result in an extra DNC delegate for Barack Obama in 2008 despite Hillary Clinton winning more county convention delegate slots at the Caucus. So like Iowa, it’s very possible that one candidate “punches above one’s weight” in winning more delegates while the “popular vote winner punches below”.

Also, there’s a whole lot of rounding (remember: we’re going all the way up from precinct caucus sites to county conventions, then to the state convention, then to the national convention), which means there’s plenty of exposure to both rounding errors and not-error-but-just-feels-unfair rounding up or down of delegate allocations. Also, there’s just a whole lot of time that voters will have to commit to caucus, from the initial reading of greetings and instructions to the viability count, and then to the realignment count that will give us the post-realignment “popular vote” and county party delegate allocation. 

It’s about way more than that Shadow over there.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Are you still with me? I know that’s a lot of math, but here’s the deal: Caucuses involve a whole lot of math and counting. And again, we’re ultimately talking about a small pool of staff and a somewhat larger network of volunteers who have to manage an entire system involving tens of thousands of voters showing up to “vote”, only to find out they have to endure a byzantine series of counts, alignments, “persuasion”, and other odd pageantries before they get hard confirmation that their preference cards will mean something.

In the past 72 hours, the entire world has learned of a shadowy company called Shadow, its ties to Democratic Party power players, and how the back-end failures of Shadow’s app led to a full-on Iowa meltdown. Obviously Shadow’s buggy app played a major role in this week’s caucus fracas, but there are bigger structural problems beyond yet another too-cute-by-half-but-still-so-half-baked “shiny new thing” that was probably designed more to appeal to donors than to serve voters.

Photo by Andrew Davey

On Tuesday, the Nevada State Democratic Party announced that it was dropping Shadow as a vendor, but as of now we still don’t know the end result of the party’s snap decision to “repeal and replace” Shadow. Just this week, I’ve spoken with folks at various points in the party network who say they don’t even know yet whether or not the party will go ahead with digital check-in, recording, or reporting, let alone whether they have enough volunteers and equipment on hand to handle (whether electronically or with “old-school” paper, pens, and phones) the pending influx of voters seeking fulfillment of the promise that “we matter”.

For everyone who couldn’t take all that, here’s the TL/DR version: Throw away the stupid “rigged system” conspiracy theories that are polluting the internet all over again. Instead, just look at all the complex spreadsheets, complicated rules, and colossal need for simple human resources behind the glitzy and glamorous veneer of our caucus. It’s not a convoluted conspiracy. Rather, it’s just a clusterf–k.

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