Sky falls on Iowa after caucus vote debacle

Elodie CUZIN
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Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wait to be counted in Iowa

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wait to be counted in Iowa (AFP Photo/JIM WATSON)

Des Moines (United States) (AFP) - Iowa is proud of its time-honored role as the first US state to vote when America starts picking presidential candidates. This time it even instituted new rules it said would make things more transparent.

But Monday night's voting could not have gone worse -- as of midday Tuesday there was still no winner, and not a single figure on voting results -- and there was growing talk that Iowa's special status might be doomed.

"Catastrophic disaster," said Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt, pulling no punches as America and the world wondered in disbelief how the Democratic nominating process could get off to such a horrific start.

"People are crying and are furious that the incompetent Democratic Party of Iowa has failed and probably destroyed the Iowa-first tradition of 50 years," he added.

A gleeful Trump mocked the Democrats and what he called their "unmitigated disaster" of a caucus night.

Since the early 1970s this vast but sparsely peopled farm state has kicked off the party nominating process with small voter debate gatherings in places like school gyms and fire stations. These are the so-called caucuses.

Often, the winner in Iowa goes on to capture the party nomination. Until Monday night, this gave Iowa a powerful, almost mystic quality as a predictor of election winners.

Republicans vote by secret ballot.

The Democrats have a more complicated system. People who support a given candidate literally stand together in part of a caucus site, and if that candidate does not get 15 percent of attendees at the site, those people have to "realign" behind another, viable candidate by standing somewhere else.

This sometimes messy dance played out Monday night in nearly 1,700 precincts.

Of the state's population of three million, around 600,000 are registered Democrats.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders' narrow defeat to Hillary Clinton caused controversy.

To provide more transparency this time around, the state Democratic Party proudly announced that it would publish results in a more detailed fashion and for the first time keep a paper record of the voting.

A new app distributed to precinct officials was supposed to help them report results more quickly, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party told AFP.

Instead, it served up bedlam.

The app failed, providing only partial results.

The party headquarters, in a small, decrepit building along a highway in the city of Des Moines, was closed to visitors on Tuesday as officials scrambled to announce the first results later in the day.

"Yes, I am disappointed. But I don’t want to pile on," Rod Sullivan, an influential county lawmaker in Iowa City, told AFP.

"It is more important that the results be correct than fast," he added, while admitting this highlights some of the problems with holding a caucus as opposed to a voting primary as other states do.

Professor Schmidt was less patient and said Iowa's first in the nation voting gig is now destined to disappear.

"Of course it's hard to see how it survives. Reliability, credibility, and transparency are the three pillars on which electoral trust rests. All three have been blown up by a truly stupid idea -- to get a new and unstable app to report results," Schmidt said.

- Another way? -

This mess is all the more painful because Iowa's first-in-the-nation voting status was already being questioned by some, notably one of the Democratic hopefuls, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who skipped the Iowa caucuses altogether.

His and other campaigns wonder aloud how it is that a mostly white state that does not represent US racial diversity and contributes few electoral college votes can attract millions of dollars every four years in investment by candidates who spend days if not months criss-crossing Iowa to woo voters.

"There must be a better way to get the vote," said 74-year-old retiree Judy Fitzgerald. She came to Iowa from Chicago with her husband and sister-in-law to campaign for Amy Klobuchar and was preparing Tuesday to go back home.

"I think they have to either go to a different system, maybe a voting primary system rather than a caucus system, and maybe they should not necessarily be the first in the nation because there were definitely technical issues," she said.

She said she does not care if Trump mocks the Democrats of Iowa.

"He always makes fun of everything," Fitzgerald said.