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Failed technology, early victory declarations, conspiracy theories, a slow trickle of results — by any measure, the 2020 Iowa caucuses were chaotic.
The confusion was sparked when a smartphone app designed to tally results from more than 1,600 precincts proved unusable. More traditional backup systems were overwhelmed. The vacuum of reliable data was swiftly filled by misinformation and outright conspiracies. In the end, the mess of the process became the story of the caucuses, rather than the actual results, which ended with Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders in a virtual tie.
While Iowa had its struggles in 2012 and 2016 as well, the state is certainly not alone. Election controversy — by either mistakes or malfeasance — has a long history in the United States.
Why there’s debate
It’s possible to look at Iowa as a one-time debacle because of all the things that make it unique. Iowa relies on an arcane caucus system that only three other states use. Iowa also gets an outsize amount of attention by voting first, which creates a fervor for results that will likely be less intense when the primary is in full swing. The debacle could also serve as a wake-up call for election organizers in upcoming primary states.
At the same time, some observers see the mess as a harbinger of things to come. The confusion in Iowa highlights many of the same complicating factors that could plague the remainder of the primary and the general election. America’s primary system, which varies from state to state, is vulnerable to administrative mistakes that can cause similar issues, some argue.
The confusion in Iowa also provided an opportunity for conspiracy theorists, conservative media and rival politicians to disseminate misinformation that confuses voters and undermines confidence in the integrity of our elections. Those forces can be expected to be active throughout the election. There’s also risk that a foreign actor may once again attempt to disrupt the American democratic process.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called for a complete review of the Iowa caucuses on Thursday. Voting in the Democratic primary campaign continues in New Hampshire on Tuesday. The next test of the caucus system will come in Nevada on Feb. 22.
Confidence in election integrity is crumbling
“Perhaps the reaction to the Iowa debacle offers a preview of what the United States faces during the next nine months. But with each episode that weakens trust in the election process, it gets a little less likely that there will be a tidy end to the election in November.” — David A. Graham, Atlantic
Truth gets overwhelmed by fake news
“Legitimate media has a huge responsibility here: to quickly identify what’s false, to relentlessly explain how disinformation flows and to get accurate information out quickly — but never before being fully vetted. But even if executed perfectly — and it won’t be — much of this will be in vain.” — Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post
Trump will seize on any hiccups to undermine the legitimacy of the election
“[Iowa] also gave us a taste of the ‘rigged’ messaging the president’s team is likely to use if there’s any questions surrounding the primary results, not to mention the outcome of Trump’s reelection campaign.” — Aaron Rupar, Vox
The muted result in Iowa means the Democratic field will remain crowded
“Iowa is typically a state that winnows the field. But with every candidate either having performed well there, potentially having an excuse for a disappointing finish there, or somewhere in between, it might not do that. Delaying the winnowing process would tangibly increase the chance of a contested convention.” — Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight
Iowa is a wake-up call to other states to shore up their elections
“Iowa has done the Democratic Party — the nation, even — a tremendous service. … Delayed and deflated though they were, the results provided more clarity than anyone is giving them credit for — in some regards more than if the voting had gone off as planned.” — Michelle Cottle, New York Times
There’s no reason to believe other states will repeat Iowa’s mistakes
“Technology often fails, but the best election officials know how to prepare. Make sure there are enough emergency ballots. Ensure every vote has a paper backup. Audit the paper record of all votes. In Iowa, party officials seemed paralyzed, unsure of next steps. We have time now for the public officials who run primaries (not caucuses) to be better prepared.” — Michael Waldman, Brennan Center for Justice
People from both parties are predisposed to distrust election results
“Add in widespread Democratic concerns about voter disenfranchisement and widespread Republican worries about voter fraud, and it’s easy to imagine that absent a clear winner and very smooth reporting in November, the 2020 election could bring some kind of legitimacy crisis.” — Lee Drutman, NBC News
The primary will become less complicated as the field is winnowed down
“Most candidates without a decent chance to be nominated drop out before the real delegate accumulation stage begins. It’s hard for things to be so balanced that as many as three, let alone four or five, have a realistic chance to win after the early primaries and caucuses. So probably only two candidates will win delegates, and one will have enough.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg
A similar issue hitting a major state like California could be catastrophic
“It’s hard to ignore the cautionary tale that Iowa’s fiasco provides for California, where a pair of significant changes to the voting process will be implemented in next month’s statewide primary.” — John Myers, Los Angeles Times
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (2) Gene J. Puskar/AP