From The Daily: Resist disillusionment in the wake of the Iowa caucus

Thursday, February 20, 2020 - 1:06pm

On Feb. 3, millions of Americans, including many in the University of Michigan community, tuned in to watch the first votes of the 2020 election cycle. The Iowa caucus was supposed to be a night that provided clarity in the crowded race for the Democratic nomination and demonstrated Democrats’ first step in their quest to win back the White House. Instead, Iowa provided more questions than answers as an under-tested app severely delayed the results of the caucuses and underscored concerns about Iowa’s spot as the nation’s first primary.

Results from the caucuses were delayed by almost 24 hours as a hastily built app, meant to expedite the tabulation process, made reporting more difficult. Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson Mandy McClure clarified that the app did not go down, but users at the precincts said they were unable to connect to the app’s central server, and phone lines were so busy that in some cases the workers were on hold for more than an hour.

Iowa is not the only state pushing to implement technology into the election cycle. West Virginia, Oregon, Colorado, California and Utah are all at different stages of testing new remote voting systems, despite strong warnings from leading cybersecurity experts. However, the decision to use an app in the Iowa caucus showed a significant failure in judgement. The app was the result of a $60,000 contract with a software company called Shadow Inc., and was put together in a matter of months. In such a critical and contested election year, it’s shocking the Iowa Democratic Party decided to implement an untested, vulnerable app that could have jeopardized the integrity of the election. 

The fiasco in Iowa has also reignited the debate over Iowa’s role as the first state to vote in the primaries and the caucus system in general. Since 1972, Iowa has been the first state to vote for both the Democratic and Republican nominees. Being first gives Iowa outsized influence in the nomination process, as well as a massive financial windfall, with campaigns spending on everything from TV ads to hotel rooms.

Additionally, there are some valid concerns about the fairness and accessibility of the caucuses. Just as the outdated nature of the caucus system has been mentioned across the country, many voters have voiced their desire for a more representative state to begin the primary process as the Democratic Party stands to represent a wide swath of minority groups. 90 percent of Iowans are white, much higher than the national average of 60 percent. The Iowa caucus is also held on a specific night at a specific time with no exceptions. There are no early voting or absentee ballots for the caucus, and people are forced to spend hours participating in them. This can be difficult for parents, minimum wage workers, students and people with disabilities. This year the Iowa Democratic Party tried to address these problems by adding caucuses in places like nursing homes while implementing satellite caucuses — including one in Ann Arbor. However, questions still remain about whether the caucus system should continue, given that its structural inflexibility can be a barrier to many voters. States like Nevada, which also has a caucus, have taken even more proactive steps to address these problems by instituting early voting and putting caucus sites in casinos to give casino workers the chance to vote. It is changes like these that could help make nominating a candidate more fair and democratic.

With the Iowa caucus debacle remaining unresolved, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) head was forced to call for a recanvass, causing the race to remain in largely the same place as it was before voting began in the immediate aftermath. Despite the claims that Iowa is unrepresentative and that it only has 41 delegates up for grabs, its significance has persisted. Iowa has long been used to filter the field and narrow the choices for the following primary states, and for Iowa to signal to the rest of the country which candidates have support and momentum that can be used in the general election. The quintessential Iowa success story comes from 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama increased his profile by winning 37.6 percent of the vote in Iowa, a result which propelled him through the primaries and into the White House. While candidate Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Ind., ultimately boosted his profile by winning one more delegate than Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the results and delegate allocation shifted multiple times in the days following the caucuses and both Buttigieg and Sanders have since asked for a recount of select caucus sites. Buttigieg and Sanders each declaring victory eliminated the opportunity for a clear frontrunner to take hold before the race moved on to the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11.

While New Hampshire only has 24 delegates in contention, its results stood in as the Iowa of the 2020 election, helping determine which candidates have support as the primary schedule heats up again, Buttigieg and Sanders. The failure of the Iowa caucus leaves the race crowded for voters making decisions in early voting states, such as California, where 15 million ballots were sent by mail the same day Iowa voting commenced.

The results of the primaries moving forward will be increasingly called into question and dragged out due to the failure of Iowa out of the gate. The Democrats cannot afford any more mistakes in the coming primaries and caucuses. On Super Tuesday, one-third of the total delegates are available, as 16 states and territories will take to the ballot booths. A crowded field of candidates into New Hampshire and a close race into Super Tuesday hinders the decisiveness that the primaries are meant to show to voters moving into a pivotal year for the Democrats.

The DNC’s failure in the Iowa caucus reflects the need for precision and care moving forward. The purpose of early primaries and caucuses is to signal to the coming states which candidates have widespread support. We, as The Michigan Daily Editorial Board, call for greater transparency from the DNC and more careful consideration of how the primaries are to be carried out. Through this, we can ensure the voices of the nation are heard and represented equally. Despite the setback in the Iowa caucus, we encourage our readers to remain politically informed and not to let this disappointment deter them from exercising their political vote. Further, we also urge voters to resist becoming disillusioned with the electoral system and to continue to stay engaged and up to date ahead of the Michigan primary on March 10.