If Iowa Were in Africa, International Observers Would Be Crying Foul

The process and results of the Iowa caucuses would be roundly denounced and challenged in the courts in most developing countries. So why are they allowed to stand in the United States?

Wallace Mazon holds a sign calling for the abolition of the Iowa caucuses outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines on Feb. 4.
Wallace Mazon holds a sign calling for the abolition of the Iowa caucuses outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines on Feb. 4. Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s not a good sign when an election trends on Twitter with the hashtag #disaster. But that’s what happened with the Iowa caucuses this month. Pretty much every stage of the process, from voting to counting to the announcement of the results, did not meet the basic democratic standards that professional election observers expect to see around the world. There is no evidence to suggest foul play, but there is quite a lot of evidence of sheer incompetence.

Although both Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have claimed victory, neither has gone to court to make his case. The same is true of the other candidates who left Iowa disappointed, such as Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, whose reputations and presidential ambitions were dented by their poor showing.

Instead, the state’s Democratic Party has started conducting a limited recanvassing exercise after being asked to “reexamine its tallies” by the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns. Definitive details have yet to be provided about what this process will entail or whether it will be credible.

Although the United States likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest democracy, its electoral system suffers from problems that have not been adequately addressed despite being apparent for generations.

Moreover, the process will only take place if Buttigieg and Sanders are willing to foot the bill. Both have moved on, preparing to fight the looming battles of Nevada, South Carolina, and the many states that vote on March 3, known as Super Tuesday.

The failings in Iowa—and the lack of an effective response—are particularly significant because they reflect a deeper democratic malaise within U.S. politics. Although the United States likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest democracy, its electoral system suffers from problems that have not been adequately addressed despite being apparent for generations.

In addition to the gerrymandering of electoral districts and the gross inequalities created by the lack of effective limits on campaign contributions, newer problems have also gone unaddressed, including the lack of security around digital technology and in some cases even electronic voting machines themselves. Failing to take these issues seriously calls into question the quality of American democracy. In the worst-case scenario, those flaws could threaten the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election itself.

The 2020 Iowa caucuses were organized a bit like an election for class president at a failing high school—late and with homemade technology. State party officials introduced the IowaRecorder app to collate and transfer results late and with insufficient training for those who needed to use it—and without proper testing in advance. It was also not fit for purpose. Some experts have described the app as incredibly basic—the kind of thing that a professor might use with students who are learning how to code. According to a team at Stanford University, it also contained major errors, including faulty coding that led to mistakes in the calculation of results. It was vulnerable to hacking due to a lack of effective security protocol—a flaw that beggars belief given the Democratic Party’s experience in 2016.

The great irony is that an app that was supposed to speed up the results and create transparency ended up producing an opaque count, widespread delays, and glaring inaccuracies. Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic Party chair for Polk County, reported that only 20 percent of precinct chairs were able to use it. Consequently, results had to be phoned or emailed in, which opened the system up to human error in the rush to manually fill in worksheets while journalists were already clamoring for the final figures.

More than 100 precincts reported tallies that were clearly faulty because they did not include the right number of delegates or did not match the figures later released by the Iowa Democratic Party. The breakdown of the system was so complete that it led to a number of conspiracy theories emerging on social media, including that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager was somehow involved (he wasn’t) or that, because of apparent connections between the app’s developer and Buttigieg’s campaign, Mayor Pete had paid for the app so that his team could influence the results in his favor (he hadn’t). But the situation surrounding the Iowa voting and reporting systems was nevertheless murky and confusing—and it is precisely this kind of murkiness that leads to conspiracy theories.

Although these allegations were quickly debunked, weak oversight of the elections meant that clear errors were allowed to stand. The most glaring example of this are photographs, reproduced in the New York Times, that capture basic mathematical errors on the worksheets that were used to add up results and calculate the number of delegates each candidate is awarded for the national convention.

The circulation of these images on social media drew comparisons to Malawi, where the constitutional court recently nullified the presidential election after many results sheets were amended under dubious circumstances in what became known as the “Tipp-Ex election,” referring to the brand of whiteout. But in contrast to Malawi, the faulty worksheets in Iowa were allowed to stand because, according to the bizarre self-justifying reasoning of the Iowa Democratic Party, the worksheets represented unalterable legal records and so could not be amended.

Faced with an election that seemed more fit for a banana republic than for the world’s most powerful democracy, Buttigieg and Sanders responded by acting like tin-pot dictators. As is the custom in countries where election tampering is commonplace, both candidates immediately declared themselves the winners before there was a complete or reliable set of results. Later, having criticized each other’s conduct, they asked the Iowa Democratic Party to check the figures again. However, their focus was on the results. It should have been on reform.

When election-monitoring organizations deploy trained observers, a key feature they look for is any evidence that the secret ballot has been compromised. The Iowa caucuses deliberately compromise the secret ballot—even though it is a prerequisite for elections to be considered free and fair in most of the world.

What passes for democracy in Iowa is called “queue voting” in Kenya and is associated with the authoritarian one-party state presided over by Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s.

Instead, people who do not have to work or care for their children in the evening turn up to their precincts and express their preference by physically moving into a certain part of the room. In Kenya, this is called queue voting and is associated with the authoritarian one-party state presided over by Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s. It is generally thought to discriminate against minority candidates, as voters fear being ostracized for not voting with the crowd. Indeed, it’s voting by peer pressure. And in Iowa, it is used to determine how many delegates each candidate should be awarded in a process that has an outsized impact on the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Iowa also has a particularly confusing process for translating votes into delegates for the candidates for the Democratic National Convention. This reflects a peculiarity of the U.S. primary system more generally. Instead of the vote tallies for each primary being added into an overall total, candidates secure delegates on a state-by-state basis. The winning candidate is then the one who can mobilize the greatest number of delegates at the convention. This introduces a number of distortions into the system, not least that the candidate with the most votes does not necessarily win. For instance, although Sanders won a couple thousand more votes than Buttigieg according to Iowa’s published numbers, the subdivision of the primary into a number of caucuses enabled Buttigieg to secure more delegates than Sanders.

The mess in Iowa undermined both the ability of any of the leading candidates to credibly claim a mandate moving forward and the credibility of the Democratic Party more broadly. U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter with glee to brand it an “unmitigated disaster.” Even leading Democrats used similar language. It is therefore striking that Nevada, which holds its caucuses this week, was also intending to use a recently developed app—this time designed for use on iPads—to collate and transmit results.

For Douglas Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa, this sounds like a dangerous way to organize an election, as if “people are still improvising and making up the rules as they go.” The chaos in Iowa ultimately forced a rethink, and officials in Nevada recently confirmed that they had dropped plans to use the app, but this leaves them with another problem: how to ensure a high quality poll when you are making last-minute decisions about key elements of the electoral process. This raises a much bigger question: Why are key elements of the election protocol, which should be known and tested months if not years in advance, being decided at the last minute?

Iowa and Nevada are not isolated examples but part of a broader trend. The belief that the United States is one of the world’s oldest and strongest democracies appears to have led to the belief that the country does not need to worry about its elections being undermined or subverted. That assumption is dangerously wrong. In 2010, researchers from the University of Michigan hacked into electronic voting machines in order to demonstrate the need for critical gaps in election infrastructure and security to be addressed. To prove their point, they made machines play the University of Michigan’s fight song every time a vote was cast.

As explained in my 2018 book, How to Rig an Election, co-written with Brian Klaas, a worrying number of those voting machines were still running badly outdated Windows software that had not had essential security updates installed. Despite the fact that we know that Russian hackers probed voting databases in at least 21 U.S. states around the 2016 general elections, the 2020 contest is still a hacker’s dream.

The U.S. government did take an important step forward in January 2017, when Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson classified election-related machinery and databases as “critical infrastructure” that was essential to national security. But the Trump administration then failed to make good on this decision by not putting the weaknesses of the country’s electoral framework at the top of the priority list—and by Trump openly saying he would consider using hacked materials provided from foreign governments for electoral gain. It’s now only a question of who will attack the U.S. elections—and when they will strike.

If international election observers descended on the United States in the way they do on many African countries, their reports would be overflowing with demands for far-reaching changes to protect the electoral system against hacking, manipulation, and malpractice.

At a time when U.S. democracy is under intense scrutiny around the world, flawed caucuses and primaries leading up to a divisive presidential election could do significant harm to the country’s reputation. Yet American leaders—including those who lecture the world about the importance of free and fair elections—are doing next to nothing to ensure that their own democratic contests meet that standard.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme

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