A Wake-Up Call From Iowa

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S1: Hey, Rick. Hello. Thank you for making the time, I know that this is like insane.

S2: As a waited and waited for the results of the Iowa caucuses Monday night, the one person I wanted to talk to was this guy, Rick Carson.

S3: It wasn’t supposed to be this way, you know, I mean, for months I’ve had on my Twitter header Election Meltdown, February 4th, 2020.

S1: But I didn’t mean it quite literally.

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S4: You didn’t mean it as a countdown clock. Election meltdown is the name of Rick’s new book. It’s about Election Day nightmares. What happens if the electricity goes out at the polls?

S5: What happens if the loser of an election refuses to concede? He’s pretty much thought of it all every election.

S3: I wanted to be quiet. You know this. If people are calling me, there’s a real problem.

S5: But even Rick hadn’t imagined this week’s scenario. A complicated process in Iowa that was made even more complicated by new rules, a troublesome smartphone app that seemed unable to tally up results and state Democratic Party completely unprepared for what happened next.

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S3: Well, this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think out a piece in 2008 and 2012 and Slate saying kill the caucuses because they keep having problems. But this fist, you know, may have gone beyond things. It does seem to be a situation of incompetence. You know, the eyes of the world are on Iowa once every four years. This is the moment. And they didn’t do adequate testing. And, you know, just like you wouldn’t premier your brand new play right straight to Broadway. No rehearsal. That’s kind of what happened here.

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S2: So today on the show, Rick’s going to explain what this very first test of 20/20 says about all the elections to come, because there are a whole lot of them. And the thing is, Iowa’s caucus implosion. Rick thinks it’s gotten upside. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

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S5: As of 5 o’clock last night, we still only had a little more than half of the precinct results in Iowa, 62 percent to be precise. They showed Pete Booth, a judge, and Bernie Sanders neck and neck. But there was enough wiggle room here that just about every candidate was claiming some kind of victory.

S6: And when those results are announced, I have a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa, despite some limited resources compared to some of those bigger bank accounts.

S7: We are way on the board.

S8: By all indications. We are going on to New Hampshire victorious.

S5: When he met with reporters, the head of the Iowa Democratic Party refused to say when he would release the rest of the results. Rickerson has spent his career trying to understand election officials like this. He says a lot of them are simply incompetent. So I asked Rick, is what happened in Iowa simply the result of human error?

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S9: It sure seems that way. I mean, we’ve been given limited information, but from what we can tell, they did two things new, right? One is they rolled out this app for reporting results that wasn’t working right and hadn’t been adequately tested. And they turned down federal cybersecurity help to make sure it was it was working.

S3: Well, they turned it down. Yeah, apparently that’s what DHS said. And then they you know, they changed some of the voting rules to to, I think, assuage the concerns of Bernie Sanders supporters about last time and about representativeness after 2016.

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S5: Bernie Sanders supporters were worried the caucus process had quashed their enthusiasm. Bernie had lost to Hillary Clinton by less than a single percentage point. And because voters in Iowa can switch their candidates if their first choice doesn’t seem viable, a few outlier precincts can really change the candidate math. So this time around, the Democratic Party agreed to release a raw tally of votes from the so-called first alignment, along with traditional data on how many state delegates the candidate won. After the caucus process was all said and done. Then they added this app to the mix. It was a way for precinct captains to report all this information right from their smartphones. Only problem was that they didn’t train the caucus workers in how to use the app. Who is who’s running this process like day to day like on the ground? We should talk about that a little bit.

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S3: So, yeah, right. So this is the Iowa Democratic Party and they’re only really doing this once every four years. These are not the people who ordinarily are government officials who run elections in Iowa. And so, you know, on top of all the other criticisms of the caucuses, you know, they’re unrepresentative. There’s no secret ballot. There’s peer pressure. People who are working can’t come on top of that. They’re run. It’s like amateur hour sometimes. And it is really not the way you want to count something that is of great importance. And that’s exactly what we did here. There were reports over the last month or so about the problems that could occur. And yet they proceeded.

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S5: There’s a lot of people saying that after this, Iowa should never go first again or that caucuses are doomed. You really looked at the history here and I’m wondering if you buy that.

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S3: Well, it’s hard to get rid of the Iowa caucus in particular, because presidential candidates who, you know, come two years before the presidential election and are meeting with local people will pledge to keep Iowa in that place. And then, you know, it’s really hard to move off of that. But maybe this latest meltdown is such a disaster that we can get some movement to get rid of, even if Iowa still goes first. I just don’t think it should be with a caucus and certainly not with a caucus that is run by a political party rather than by election professionals.

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S10: It’s funny you say it’s undemocratic. I’ve heard the opposite argument, though, too, like this is how democracy should work. Neighbors talking to neighbors, convincing people to go one way or another. Are people having to declare themselves publicly? Do you buy that?

S3: Well, I think there’s something communitarian about that. But of course, you’re starting with a very skewed community. Iowa itself is already not very representative, a Democratic Party in terms of demographics. It’s older. It’s whiter. But, you know, if you exclude people, I think this is the first time we had a caucus where they made accommodations for disabilities on a large scale. You know, people who are out of the country. So now we had we had a Paris caucus for Iowa now because it really it you know, you had to be there in person. They’ve made all of these kind of half measures to try to make it more representative in order to preserve Iowa’s ability to go first, because if they made it into a primary, then they would run headlong into a fight with New Hampshire, another unrepresentative state, over who would have the first primary.

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S10: Hold it. So the reason they go first is because they’re a caucus, because.

S3: Right. So New Hampshire says we know we are the first primary and they are. It’s not a primary in Iowa. It’s a caucus. And so that’s kind of the way that we get around this. If we had two primaries going first, you know, there’d be a fight there. And all the presidential candidates who end up controlling the political parties. They don’t want to alienate the voters in these states. And that’s why this very undemocratic system continues to persist. For years, there have been alternative proposals. And one that I like is the rotating regional primary. So, you know, one election year, the Pacific Northwest would go first. You’d have a cluster of states up there. And the next time it might be the southeast. And this way, candidates could concentrate geographically in one part of the country and everyone would get a turnout. That’s not the problem that led to the meltdown in Iowa. But, you know, there’s lots of ways that we could try to fix the undemocratic nature of Iowa, New Hampshire going first if we wanted to.

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S5: I mean, we sort of ticked off all the things that happened here. All these layers of complication that seem to have added up to a real debacle in Iowa. It seems like someone should’ve could have stepped in and said maybe this is too much like, why didn’t that happen?

S3: So was it Will Rogers who said, I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat. So, you know, this is run by the party and, you know, petty party things get in there and regional allegiances get in there. And all kinds of internal party politics play a role. I certainly hope that for November we can do a better job. Of course, we’re not using caucuses to choose the president in November. So that’s a good thing.

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S5: As the primaries play out, Rick says it is this opportunity to test out the systems all of us are going to rely on come fall. Part of the problem he sees is that states make their own decisions about what kind of technology they’re going to use at the ballot box. There’s just not one national standard.

S3: But, you know, there’s a role for the federal government here, too. I mean, Congress has the power. To set the rules for elections, federal elections and Congress can set some rules about what kind of machinery and what kind of standards can be used. We haven’t started talking about this. No question about voting machines. The voting machines themselves that are going to be used, the ones you’re gonna be used in Georgia or in North Carolina or in Pennsylvania, they’re going to be rolled out the first time that are going to produce a barcode that’s going to be read by a machine. And there’s a question of, well, how do you audit that and know that the machine is properly counting the votes? The way voters wanted them.

S5: Right. Look, if I vote and I look at a barcode, I don’t know what that barcode means.

S3: Right. So the big fight now is to say there’s a recount in a jurisdiction that’s used one of these ballot marking device machines. What’s going to control the non-human readable barcode or QR code or the name that gets printed on the ballot? At in Georgia, it looks like the answer is going to be the computer wins, not the human. And that seems to me to be a terrible way to run an election.

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S5: All this variation can lead to a lot of uncertainty. And that uncertainty can look a lot like what we saw Monday night. State officials pleading for patience.

S3: Well, I think time is a reasonable thing to ask for. I think and here’s something that people are going to have to get used to this idea. We really may not know who is the president four days after the presidential election because it takes time to count ballots. And places like Pennsylvania are now for the first time allowing anyone who wants to vote by absentee ballot. Absentee ballots take a much longer time to count because they have to be verified to make sure that they’re coming from the person where they’re supposed to be coming from. So time is not the problem. And if, in fact, the Iowa Democratic Party had said, listen, this is a complicated thing, we will announce results on Wednesday. And I think people would have you know, they would’ve said, humph, I don’t like that, but they would’ve moved on. It wouldn’t have been this thing where, you know, every reporter in America is waiting for the results to send to their readers and their listeners. And every candidate is ready to make one of two speeches. You know, the winning speech or the losing speech and then nothing for hours and hours and hours.

S9: And then this cryptic thing from the Democratic Party about quality control issues, which sounds bizarre.

S11: Again, quote, We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. So something wasn’t matching up and making sense, it seems, between that first the final vote and those things, the technical problems which led to Republicans piling on and trying to sully the whole thing by saying that there’s some intentional rigging going on.

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S3: I mean, it’s just a disaster how they dealt with the problem even after the problem arose.

S5: But it’s interesting because what you’re saying is that at least half of this disaster was just expectations setting like what the Iowa Democratic Party said was we’re going to have these results at a certain time.

S10: CNN makes their plans. They get all their people in front of a desk, get in front of a camera, ready to talk. Then it gets to be 10 o’clock. Those people get anxious. They start transmitting their anxiety to their audience. More anxiety is sort of created. And then it becomes a kind of un- virtuous circle.

S3: You know, I think this is right. It’s an expectations game. And remember, the whole point of my book, Election Meltdown is asking the question, how do we know that we’ve had a fair election so that the losers will accept the result and be willing to say that was a tough battle we lost this time, but we’re gonna fight again next time and things are going to be better next time. You know, that depends on a lot of things going right. And there are so many things that could go wrong.

S9: So expectations are a big part of all of this.

S10: Listening to talk, I can’t help but think there are just so many ways for this to go wrong.

S3: Yeah, but you know, the good news is it only matters in a very close election. And, you know, we’re not going have a close election this time. Right.

S5: That was going to be my last question to you.

S10: Which is it seems to me that things have been bad, but we’re noticing it now because our elections are so close like that highlights all the problems because the stakes are just so much higher.

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S3: And not only that, it not only does it. Are the stakes raised. What it also does is there’s less room for being understanding. Yes, somebody messed up. They’re only human. They did the best they could. You know that. That doesn’t work when the stakes are so high. You’re you’re less able to be understanding when the stakes are so high and you’re bound to see things that are mere incompetence as something much more nefarious. And so that just contributes to the overall distrust of the process, which is why we need not only better administration, but greater transparency so people know what’s going on.

S10: So you’re really pitching us forward from this moment where we’re looking at Iowa and kind of saying, what a mess. You’re saying, listen, you need to strap in for more mess. And I’m wondering how we can tell our listeners to get ready for that, because it’s very anxiety provoking.

S5: So I wonder, for the voters who are listening, what would you tell them about resetting their expectations?

S3: So I do think that talking just like talking about voter suppression can be demobilising talking about election problems could be demobilising. But the reason I wrote election meltdown now, rather than for it to come out in October is because we have about nine months where lots of things can be done to minimize the chances of a meltdown, including things that could be done to make sure that our election administration and our voting machines are in good shape. And so now is not the time for complacency. Now’s the time for action. And now is the time for citizen activism to ensure that election officials are going to work in a fair and transparent way. I mean, I think everywhere voters should be insisting on transparency in their left local election processes because elections are being administered on the county or lower level. There’s room for people to be active and involved and observing and trying to give input. So my message is one of the quite the opposite. It’s it’s not too late to try to minimize the chances of a problem. Let’s see what we can do right now.

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S5: Yeah, I kind of wonder if you look at what’s happening in Iowa and think in a way this could be good in the long run because, yes, it’s a wakeup call.

S3: I think that’s that’s how this was relatively low stakes. There were 41 delegates at stake. I mean, there was bragging rights. Sure. And it was all of this media buildup. But in the scheme of things, you know, someone could come in fourth or fifth in Iowa and still easily win the nomination.

S12: You know, in terms of the delegate count, this is just a wakeup call that things are messed up in a lot of ways and we need to get our act together very quickly.

S10: Rick Hasen, thank you so much for joining me. It’s great to be with you.

S13: Rick Hasen is the author of Election Meltdown. You should also check out the stories he’s been working on with Dahlia Lithwick over the amicus podcast. OK. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson, Martha Silvers, Jason de Leon and Danielle Hewitt. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.