Ballot Box

A Night at the Caucuses

DES MOINES, IOWA–At Central Campus, a magnet high school in the middle of town, the Republicans caucus in a classroom upstairs, the Democrats in the big auditorium downstairs.

Both parties are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., but only the orderly Republicans start on time. A few minutes after the hour, attendees take turns coming forward to the front of the classroom to give one-minute speeches for the candidates. A lawyer rises to speak for Bush, arguing that his man is a “winner” who has cut taxes in Texas. A silver-haired fellow who rises to speak for Forbes argues that “elective offices is not a qualification for the presidency.” A Keyes advocate says that he supports Alan Keyes but does not give any reasons. No one speaks up for Bauer, McCain, or Hatch. At the end of the speeches, blue paper ballots are passed out. The atmosphere is relaxed. The 96 people attending check off their choices in private, and return their ballots to the front of the room for tabulation. They sit patiently for 40 minutes or so, until the people running the show are ready to announce the count:

Bauer: 3

Bush: 38

Forbes: 29

Hatch: 0

Keyes: 11

McCain: 15

The Forbes people are pleased by this, the Bush people a little disappointed. All express mild surprise at McCain’s strong showing. A few stay to take in some additional party business. The rest put on their coats and go home.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium downstairs, the Democrats are in chaos. At 7:20, as the Republicans are collecting ballots, there’s still a line of people waiting to sign in. The atmosphere is raucous: Bradley advocates are engaged in a competitive cheering and sign-waving contest with the Gore advocates, whose decibel level is boosted by 50 black high-school students from Chicago, who are visiting as part of a program called “The Mikva Challenge.” No one can hear the chairperson of the caucus, a woman with a very small voice and no microphone in a very large hall. Paulee Lipsman eventually conveys to attendees that they have to count off. There are 183 registered voters present. Lipsman then gets across the idea that they have to divide, with Bradley supporters on the right, Gore on the left. Each group then counts off again. There are 94 votes for Bradley, 85 for Gore.

These totals don’t quite add up to 183, even if you assume that three uncommitted voters didn’t vote on the second round, as they are allowed to do. But at nearly 8 p.m.,  no one is being a stickler for details, including Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who happens to be in attendance. The assumption is that a few people may have gotten tired of waiting around and gone home. In fact, it doesn’t much matter, because whereas the Republicans report actual vote totals, the Democrats have a screwy sort of electoral college. The system is far more complicated than it is interesting, so I won’t bore you with the details, which I only dimly grasp. Earlier this evening I interviewed the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Rob Tully, who acknowledged that the system was incomprehensible and in need of repair.

The oddities of the Democratic vote count are minor compared to other unfairnesses built into the system. Start out with the fact that you have to be physically present to cast a vote. There are no absentee ballots in the Iowa caucuses, no excuses if you’re sick or disabled or have to work late or can’t afford to pay a babysitter. At the event itself, obnoxious electioneering is actively encouraged. There is no actual democratic deliberation or discussion, just some guys making speeches that no reasonable person would want to listen to (on the Republican side). You have no right to a secret ballot (on the Democratic side). When you consider all of these indignities, it’s no surprise that turnout is typically less than 10 percent.

The usual complaint about the Iowa caucus is that it’s unfair to give so much power to a small state that’s not representative of the rest of the country. The lesson I take away is that the caucuses are much worse than that. They give vast power to a tiny minority in a small state–those willing to put up with a huge amount of bullshit.