The Iowa caucuses debacle is a case study in what can go wrong when amateurs, without a lot of training, are entrusted to administer a highly coordinated, high-stakes, complex process in a short amount of time. There's really no way to prevent catastrophes such as what happened Monday without eliminating the source of the problem: elections that have consequences for everyone being run entirely by private entities without government oversight or regulations. Fixing the nomination process for 2024 should also mean doing away with caucuses.
Unlike most jobs, in which you generally have the opportunity to learn on the job or apprentice, people administering elections do not have a grace period. Election workers show up on the day voters do, and they must execute so that voting rights are honored, ballots are accurately handled, tabulation is transparent and results are confidently reported. To pull this off requires months of preparation and a training apparatus that provides people administering elections with practical, clear materials, information and rapid-response answers to all of the questions that invariably come up.
Because of this, most primary elections are overseen by professional state and local officials who abide by laws regarding election administration and access to the ballot and who have clear checks in place. In contrast, caucuses are run by political parties with no government entity or regulatory apparatus overseeing them. This is not to say that all elections in the United States are well run and that all caucuses are poorly run. The potential for error is greater, however, when fewer checks are in place - and caucuses, by design, have fewer checks.
The Iowa caucuses problems were administration problems: The Iowa Democratic Party introduced a new app with little training and barely any transparency, and apparently little testing. It mandated new, complex reporting requirements that had never been used before. The party also apparently didn't hire enough people to work the phones to provide the backup needed should the app run afoul. These were foreseeable problems, but ones that went unaddressed. With so many viable Democratic candidates this time, the margins were sure to be slim, which meant that candidates would scrutinize every vote and seize on any irregularity. Unlike a landslide in which minor discrepancies can be overlooked or dealt with after the election because the results are still crystal clear, extremely tight contests that come down to a handful of votes are make or break for any candidate.
Conducting an election the right way involves a multi-step process: registering to vote, voting, counting votes, and reporting the data accurately and transparently. Every state in the United States has laws designed around each of these steps, providing election administrators with guidelines. A well-run election begins months before the actual election. It begins with clear rules, solid manuals and good training protocols. Most states have laws requiring that voting equipment be tested, put under stress and retested. Most administrators establish backup plans.
Every aspect of election administration should be designed around all the ways that we, as humans, fail, and all the ways technology fails us. The system needs to be set up to address the all-too-human challenges of inattention, fatigue, poor training and even willful neglect. The technology, tools, machines and systems must match human abilities and limitations. Elections - like any other complicated system - are rife with places where human beings can mess up - from incorrectly marking a ballot, to forgetting a step in the process, to power outages, to not knowing how to press the "on" button. In Iowa, caucus chairs were downloading the app the day of the caucus. This does not inspire confidence that the app was tested and well understood. Well-designed systems have measures in place to ensure multiple pathways to getting accurate results.
The debacle of the 2000 election exposed significant flaws in our system of election administration, from technological issues around the design of Florida's "punch card" voting machines to observing the impact of partisan election officials manipulating rules to achieve partisan advantage. Experts have learned a lot since then about best practices and how to effectively measure election performance. We've also developed innovative policies to improve access to voting: Early voting, vote-by-mail, automatic voter registration and assistive technology to support voters with disabilities are among the major changes. Thirty-nine states have early voting, 21 states have provisions allowing certain elections to be conducted by mail, and 16 states have automatic voter registration. Behind the scenes, social scientists and election administrators have invested a great deal of time and energy developing valid and reliable metrics to help us assess election performance and make improvements where necessary. At the heart of these innovations is the idea that election administration can be improved and that making voting accessible and convenient goes a long way toward overcoming the costs associated with voting.
But caucuses are, by design, different. Caucuses are not hotbeds of policy innovation or systems designed to insure access and participation. There is no secret ballot, no absentee voting, no early voting, no vote-by-mail. Caucuses are designed to enable party activists to select the candidate they think will have the best chance of winning in the general election. Before the transformation of the presidential nomination system set out by the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1972, caucuses were often closed to those who did not hold party office. Precinct caucuses, county conventions and other party meetings tended to stretch out over weeks, even months. After the reforms, a new requirement mandating that all of a state's caucuses take place simultaneously had the consequence of turning caucuses into major news events. The transformation of presidential nominations to a fully public process gave the news media more to cover and bequeathed disproportionate importance to the early states in the nomination race - such as Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states that retained the caucus system for the purpose of nomination, however, were slow to change their internal rules to address challenges faced by people who cannot attend because of conflicting work hours, child-care responsibilities or disabilities, to name but a few potential obstacles.
Whether a state adopts a primary or a caucus is the prerogative of individual states. It is unlikely that the national party would attempt to impose its will on states. So the 2020 Iowa caucuses fiasco offers the Iowa Democratic Party a chance to shift gears and make changes in time for 2024. The party should eliminate the caucuses. This shift will expand the electorate, make the results more representative and eliminate the challenges associated with caucuses.
This column was written by Rachael V. Cobb, for The Washington Post. Cobb is chair and associate professor of political science at Suffolk University in Boston.