The Iowa Caucus Debacle

For the past 20 years, every democratic candidate who has secured a victory in the Iowa caucus has gone on to become the nominee. This should give you some insight as to the importance of the voting process in Iowa, not because it is simply a signal of who is going to win, but because of its position on the voting calendar. Iowa votes before any other state, which means the results set the stage for the remainder of the race. Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) said on February that this year was “the most prepared we've ever been as a party” for the upcoming caucus. Despite this, the Iowa caucus, held on the 3rd of February, was a disaster. It was so poorly run that Webster County, a county containing over 36,000 people, did not even have an official present to run the voting. On February 12th Troy Price resigned his position as the IDP chair after his removal was called for by members of the committee. Committee members Holly Brown and Judy Downs raised concerns of cronyism and conspiracy due to Price's closeness with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton (2016 democratic nominee) and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg (2020 democratic candidate). Their accusations were credible, as the founder of the company who developed the app intended to help run the Iowa caucuses (which crashed during the event) is married to a senior advisor on the Buttigieg campaign, and it seems Price himself is close with the Buttigieg campaign. So, here's what happened in the events that led to Troy Price's resignation.

The app designed to allow precinct officials to publish their results to the IDP was developed by a company named Shadow. Shadow, it turns out, received donations from several different sections of the Democratic Party, which seems normal considering they were developing it to run their caucus. However, Shadow also received donations almost as large as those from the IDP from candidate Pete Buttigieg as can be seen below.

In total Pete For America (Pete Buttigieg's campaign) donated $42,500 USD to Shadow accross two donations, while the IDP itself only donated $63,183.91 USD. Despite the donations and the fact that its founder is married to a senior advisor to Buttigieg's campaign, Shadow has said that the campaign has no ties to the development of the app. Shadow also has ties to Hillary Clinton, who ran against Bernie in the primaries in 2016, as some of its current employees are former employees of Hillary for America (Hillary's 2016 campaign). Now let's examine the problems with the results themselves.

According to some precinct officials, the app was failing to work on the final step of the process of uploading their results. This was uploading a picture of their voting sheets and the number of State Delegate Equivalents (SDEs) they had assigned to the candidates. Upon realising that this step was failing, they turned to the back-up phone lines. This hot line which officials were told to use was often not responsive or keeping officials on hold for hours at a time. For some precinct chairs, after finally being able to upload the photos of their results, they noticed that the app was reporting different numbers than what they had submitted. IDP chair Troy Price recognised this as a coding issue in the reporting system developed by Shadow and told reporters it had later been fixed.

On top of this misreporting of internal numbers by the app, there were also some blatant math errors in the results that certain counties handed in on handwritten worksheets known as ‘caucus math worksheets.’ However, according to internal e-mails between party officials, the IDP is refusing to even attempt to resolve any of these math errors. According to the party lawyer, the math must not be changed in order to ensure the integrity of the caucus process, as correcting it would introduce “personal opinion” into the results. She argued that the party's role is to tabulate the results, and that the information they receive, correct or not, is agreed upon by caucus officials. And it gets worse.

The final problem that has been raised with the conclusion of the Iowa caucus is that a worryingly large percentage of the counties had numbers reported by the IDP that were inconsistent with the results they themselves had reported.

Above you can see an example, from Black Hawk County, of results being incorrectly reported by the IDP when compared to the results reported by the concerned elected official in the county. In this case, Sanders lost over 400 votes which appear to have gone mostly to Tom Steyer. According to an analysis by the New York Times, over 100 precincts had reported results that were either internally inconsistent, that were missing data, or that were not possible under the complex Iowa caucus rules. In some cases, votes were tallied incorrectly, in others precincts were incorrectly assigned to certain candidates and in at least a few cases, as in Black Hawk County, the results reported from the IDP did not match those reported by the county.

The issues surrounding the Iowa caucus have resulted in three major important outcomes. Firstly, as discussed earlier, IDP chair Troy Price was asked to step down and DNC chairman Tom Perez called for a recanvas or recount of the results on February 6th. Secondly, despite the issues raised with the closeness of Troy Price and the company Shadow who developed the app to the campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the Nevada Democratic Party recently hired a Buttigieg campaign organizer to serve as their ‘voter protection director’ for the Nevada caucus on February 22nd. The party says she will not be involved directly. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Buttigieg's campaign received a huge boost in support after the media unanimously declared his campaign the victor of the caucus using results they themselves said were incorrect. Buttigieg has gained almost four points nationally between February 3rd and 20th. Was this the intention of the IDP? Did the donations from Pete for America sway their decision making in any way? Was Troy Price's closeness with the Pete Buttigieg's campaign related in any way? It is clear who gained the most in the aftermath of the Iowa caucus, yet what is not clear is was this just a perfect storm of mistakes, oversights and system failures, or was it done, to some degree, intentionally?

Last modified: 20 February 2020