5 early lessons from the Iowa caucus catastrophe
The Iowa caucuses are over — perhaps forever. But the consequences from the debacle of confusion and delay in reporting the year's first presidential election returns will surely reverberate for the rest of the 2020 campaign and beyond.
Democratic Party officials say they'll release a majority of the caucus results before the end of Tuesday, allowing the candidates to belatedly begin shaping their own narratives for the next stage of the race. But the tale of how Monday night's calamity will affect all of American democracy is already starting to come into view. Here are five of the clearest early takeaways:
1. Confidence in our elections has been shaken anew.
Belief that elections in the United States are a global gold standard for reliability were severely tested four years ago. But all the widespread, bipartisan and expensive efforts to resurrect that perception this year were rattled to the core on the very first try — by a flat inability to quickly count and announce how just 200,000 or so people voted in a single state.
The Russians may not have been able to change one vote or alter a single voter registration record in 2016, but they surely succeeded in undermining confidence.
An Ipsos poll in October found only about half of registered voters believe the 2020 presidential contest election will be conducted openly and fairly. And fewer than a third said they believed the government has done enough to protect elections from foreign interference. A Marist poll in January found nearly the same thing: 4 in 10 view the country as not very well prepared — or not prepared at all — to keep the coming election secure and free of foreign intrusion.
Well before all those zeros stayed on the TV scoreboards for close to a full day after Iowans finished caucusing, many of the officials who oversee elections or experts who work on voting security were saying the same thing: Public perception that our election systems aren't working right is a problem at least as great as the actual threat of outside interference.
Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, has put it this way: "If we keep telling voters that elections are screwed up then they're going to start believing us."
Another issue that makes what happened in Iowa so potentially damaging is that Democrats are far more suspicious than Republicans of the integrity of our elections. In the Marist poll, two-thirds of Democrats expressed disbelief at the country's readiness to protect 2020 from foreign hacking — while 85 percent of Republicans think just the opposite.
2. Voting: Maybe there is no app for that.
Iowa Democratic officials are adamant that "not a hack or an intrusion" caused the widespread failures of the mobile application provided to supervisors at each caucus site — with the promise that the app, in its debut, would allow them to quickly and easily forward the results from almost 1,700 gatherings to Des Moines for tabulation and disclosure by the state party.
Still, election security experts can be counted on for an I-told-you-so moment, because they delivered plenty of warnings that using such a system was fraught with danger.
Basically, experts say, any activity in the election process — from poll workers checking voters' registration, to the casting of the ballots, to the transmission of vote totals to a central location, to the tabulation of all those results — is vulnerable if the system is connected to the internet at any point. That's why there's so much agreement that going old-school, with paper backups at every turn, is the best modern practice for conducting elections.
But an apparent software glitch Monday caused the new mobile app to report wrong numbers and sowed widespread confusion, with some caucus organizers deciding to call in results for manual recording, introducing delays and the possibility of human error in part because the phone banks at state party headquarters were overwhelmed.
"While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system," state Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said in a statement Tuesday, adding the issue has since been fixed. "The application's reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately."
Reports identified the maker of the app as a Washington, D.C.-based company called Shadow Inc.
According to its website, the company has an opening for a "client success representative."
The Nevada Democratic Party, which is planning for the next presidential caucuses Feb. 22, "can confidently say" Iowa's problems will not be repeated in three weeks — in part because that vendor's app won't be deployed.
3. Delayed results may be the new normal.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer and the other hyperventilating anchors on cable television may need to take medication or mindfulness classes if they are going to make it through this election season.
That's because, thanks to the intense emphasis on securing elections from foreign interference, it is highly likely the results after many primaries and caucuses — and especially on Nov. 3 — will not be served up by state and local officials nearly as quickly as it takes to get a Big Mac at a drive-through. The decision by the Iowa Democrats to react to evidence of unreliable results by putting an unusually long and comprehensive hold on releasing the results, in other words, may end up being emulated many more times in the months ahead.
Still, we live in a culture where we expect everything immediately. California psychologist Stephanie Brown even labeled it as our "addiction to speed" in a book several years ago.
Among the things likely to slow the process this year are the increasing use of paper voter registration rolls instead of computers to check in people at polling places. Also, more officials are moving to voting by paper ballot and in many locations far more mail-in ballots are expected this year because of changes that allow for excuse-free absentee voting.
Especially in light of the Iowa problems, web-connected systems for reporting the results from precincts to the central office may also be replaced with something less vulnerable — but slower.
Finally, there are indications this year's presidential contest may produce a record number of voters, with nearly 80 percent turnout. Such big totals could swamp the number of officials and voting machines in thousands of precincts, leading to tallying delays that extend long after Election Day.
4. We live in a democracy, not a prime time miniseries.
Sometimes, it seems, the public and some in the media need a reminder that the presidential election is not "The Sopranos" or "Game of Thrones." Just because the first episode went haywire doesn't mean people should throw up their arms in frustration or, worse yet, change channels.
All the anxiety on television Monday night about the silence out of Des Moines should not — at least not yet — serve as a window opening on soap-opera-like evidence that the Iowa caucuses got hijacked by a hostile foreign power or were rigged by the party to favor one of the candidates while hobbling others. In the end, it's still a safe bet all the candidates will view the announcement of what happened Monday as credible. (After all, the caucuses themselves were all held out in the open, with representatives of the candidates free to watch and take notes and then check them against the belatedly official results.)
Also, this is not a show starring other people. Elections are part of the real work of democracy starring all of us as citizens, not consumers.
Political and social scientists have been studying for years the intersection of consumer culture and civic culture, with some wondering whether the former is pushing out or changing the latter. One conference several years ago was aptly titled "The politics of consumption/the consumption of politics."
5. All will be well.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that from all indications the Iowa caucuses were a huge success from the standpoint of democracy.
There was ample chance for reasoned debate among people who often disagree; we saw a record or near record turnout; there was support for numerous candidates across a wide political spectrum; the problems with the results were not hidden for more than an hour; and in the end we still expect an accurate count of the vote and correct apportionment of the delegates.
Similarly, it's important to remember that, despite all the heat in 2016, Russian hackers succeeded only in viewing limited registration information on Illinois and Florida voters. That information is public record in both states.
And perhaps more has been done in the past four years to improve our elections — including hundreds of millions spent on new voting systems and security — than at any time in American history.
So maybe the country should take a breath after Iowa, after all.
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