Chaos in Iowa Democratic caucuses shows need for reform

The Iowa fiasco has put the absurdity of this system on full display. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/FLICKR

On Feb. 3, the Democratic presidential primary officially kicked off with the Iowa caucuses. Polls showed a close four-way race between former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Voters, commentators and campaign staff all went into election night expecting a volatile race. What they didn’t anticipate, however, was that the results would remain unclear a week later.

Between technical difficulties and new reporting requirements, many precinct officials had to report complicated results step by step over the phone, with some county leaders being kept on hold for hours. Both of these factors led the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) to announce that the results would be delayed, as they were doing “quality control” checks.

Since then, the IDP has slowly trickled out the results in piecemeal. Initial reports showed a tight race between Buttigieg and Sanders, and the margin has only gotten narrower with time. Now, between discrepancies pointed out by the New York Times and disputes over the rules, the actual winner is still unclear.

The chaos and confusion coming out of the Iowa caucuses have already set the rest of the race on an unpredictable course. Sanders and Buttigieg have both declared victory in Iowa, and they are tied in the polls entering the next election in New Hampshire.

Stepping back, however, one has to ask whether the Iowa caucuses and other small early states should play such a prominent role in the first place.

Demographically speaking, Iowa is hardly representative of the Democratic electorate. The state is relatively small at only 3 million people, and 85 percent of Iowans are non-Hispanic white. New Hampshire, the next primary after Iowa, has similar issues with representation.

Worse, the caucus process itself is deeply undemocratic. Unlike a traditional election, voters must show up in person and signal their preferred candidate by standing in a designated area at their precinct. Their vote is public, allowing for intimidation and peer pressure, and there is no opportunity to submit an absentee ballot. The caucus system is one likely reason why turnout in these races is low. Out of 2.1 million registered voters, only about 170,000 people turned out to the Iowa caucuses this year.

Despite these factors, reporters and pundits place heavy emphasis on Iowa as the first test of the presidential candidates. Narratives emerge about which candidates are most viable, and those narratives influence voters in later states.

The Iowa fiasco has put the absurdity of this system on full display. In a functioning democracy, such a small and unrepresentative slice of voters should not have so much sway over the process.

Now is the time to take responsibility and fix this dysfunctional system. Media figures, party officials and presidential campaigns should place less emphasis on these small early races.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.