Vote-counting fiasco hurts Iowa GOP and Iowa caucuses

The Republican Party of Iowa will not declare Rick Santorum the winner of the Iowa caucuses, even though he leads Mitt Romney by a few dozen votes according to the certified results, and led Romney unofficially in the eight precincts where results could not be certified. A narrow margin of victory with a clear winner would have been great for the Iowa GOP, as it would show multiple paths to winning the caucuses. A disputed result that produces no official winner is a public relations nightmare.

UPDATE: Iowa GOP Chair Matt Strawn now admits Santorum won the caucuses. The episode still makes the party look bad, for reasons I discuss below.

Jennifer Jacobs was the first to report the certified totals in her “exclusive” for today’s Des Moines Register.

TOTALS

Rick Santorum: 29,839

Mitt Romney: 29,805

Ron Paul: 26,036

Newt Gingrich: 16,163

Rick Perry: 12,557

Michele Bachmann: 6,046

Jon Huntsman: 739

Others: No preference, 147; Herman Cain, 45; Sarah Palin, 23; Buddy Roemer, 17; Fred Karger, 10; Gary Johnson, 8; Donald Trump, 5; Paul Ryan, 3; Condoleeza Rice, 2; Roy Moore, 2; Ben Lange, 2; Mike Huckabee, 2; Rudy Giuliani, 2; Tim Pawlenty, 2; Scott Walker, 1; John McCain, 1; Ralph Nader, 1; Pat Buchanan, 1; Robert D. Ray, 1; Jared Blankenship, 1.

THE EIGHT MISSING PRECINCTS

* Cerro Gordo County’s Mason City Ward 2, Precinct 3

* Emmet County’s Estherville Ward 2

* Franklin County’s Geneva-Reeve

* Lee County’s Fort Madison 4A

* Lee County’s Fort Madison 4B

* Lee County’s Franklin-Cedar-Marion

* Lee County’s Washington-Green Bay-Denmark

* Pocahontas County’s Center-South Roosevelt-North Lincoln

Jacobs took Iowa GOP Chair Matt Strawn’s words at face value:

Results from eight precincts are missing – any of which could hold an advantage for Mitt Romney – and will never be recovered and certified, Republican Party of Iowa officials told The Des Moines Register on Wednesday.

GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 – a margin greater than the certified tally. […]

So who won the Iowa caucuses?

“I can’t speculate without documentation from the missing eight,” Strawn said. […]

As far as party leaders could tell, no Form Es ever existed for the eight missing precincts, [Iowa GOP Executive Director Chad] Olsen said. There’s no chance those eight will certified, he said.

“It’s a split decision,” Olsen said.

Jacobs apparently didn’t think to ask about the unofficial totals reported the night of January 3 from those eight precincts. According to Craig Robinson,

In the eight disputed precincts, Santorum received 81 votes to Romney’s 46.

If the results in those precincts are included, Santorum wins the caucuses by 69 votes.  If those precincts are excluded, Santorum wins the caucuses by 34 votes. […]

As someone who oversaw the Iowa caucuses four years ago, I can tell you that there are always precincts that fail to turn in the proper documents.  This is the case because the caucuses are conducted entirely by Republican volunteers.  Sometimes you have two precincts that meet together and submit their votes in one lump sum.  Other times you have precincts where nobody shows up.

It seems odd that Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn declared Romney the winner on caucuses night, but refuses to declare Santorum the winner after the certification process.

Yes, that certainly does seem odd, especially since Strawn expressed confidence that the certification process wouldn’t change the results when news broke about a counting error in Appanoose County.

I have to wonder how hard Strawn’s team tried to track down those missing results. O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa,

Reporters in Radio Iowa affiliate newsrooms have contacted officials in the four of the five counties which have missing precincts and the local party leaders said they had no idea those precincts were missing. All four county leaders indicated this morning’s call from a reporter was the first they’d heard about it. Four of the eight missing precincts are in Lee County, which is the Fort Madison area. One of the other missing precincts is in Mason City, the others are in Estherville, the Hampton area and rural Pocahontas County.

There are no recounts for Caucus results, as the “ballots” are destroyed after Caucus Night counting. Some counties had printed the names of candidates on pieces of paper which were distributed for voting, but most Caucus-goers wrote the name of their preferred candidate on a blank sheet of paper.

The results released this morning by Iowa GOP officials were emailed.  The doors to the party headquarters in Des Moines are locked.  Party chairman Matt Strawn is not responding to requests for an interview.

Amateur hour. How could Olsen not alert county chairs that the Iowa GOP was missing forms from certain precincts? A generous explanation would call this incompetence. Others may suspect that once party leaders saw Santorum pulling slightly ahead, they were happy to embrace a fig leaf allowing them to label the results inconclusive.

Nick Ryan, who was a paid consultant for the Santorum campaign in Iowa, expressed outrage today:

“They look like the keystone cops – my god,” Ryan wrote in an email to POLITICO. “Romney wins by 8 and nothing will change. Final count shows santorum wins by 34 and it’s a tie?”

I got a kick out of Steve Deace’s take on the news:

Now this is some rich irony…Nick Ryan and his partner Bruce Rastetter have worked for every establishment cause in Iowa I can think of the past few years, including Romney in 2008 and Branstad in 2010…this time he actually went with a conservative who believes things and gets a taste of the crap sandwich his establishment buddies have been cramming down our throats for years.

Welcome to the other side of the septic tank.

Deace is a Newt Gingrich backer, by the way.

David Kochel, who worked on Romney’s campaign, called the results a “virtual tie” and congratulated Santorum “on an excellent campaign in Iowa.”

Bob Vander Plaats told Radio Iowa, “It’s exciting to see that [Santorum] won the Iowa Caucuses. I hope the media now reports that he’s the winner versus Romney’s the winner because when the results were inconclusive, they kept reporting that Romney was the winner.”

Romney sent this written statement to the Des Moines Register:

“The results from Iowa caucus night revealed a virtual tie. I would like to thank the Republican Party of Iowa for their careful attention to the caucus process, and we once again recognize Rick Santorum for his strong performance in the state.

“The Iowa caucuses, with record turnout, were a great start to defeating President Obama in Iowa and elsewhere in the general election.”

Santorum’s campaign released a statement saying the Iowa results destroy Romney’s narrative of “inevitability”:

“Conservatives can now see and believe they don’t have to settle for Romney, the establishment’s moderate candidate – who authored the model for Obamacare that provided taxpayer funded abortions, who boasted that he was more socially liberal than Ted Kennedy, and who supported Wall Street bailouts.

“There is a consistent conservative alternative who has the proven record of reforming entitlements, defending the unborn, and standing up for American exceptionalism around the globe – and has proven that he is the one man in this race able to defeat Mitt Romney.

“That candidate is Rick Santorum.

“This latest defeat of Governor Romney in Iowa is just the beginning, and Rick Santorum is committed to continuing the fight as the clear, consistent conservative voice in this race.”

The clear losers here are Iowans who like going first in the presidential nominating process. Too many times, the results from the Iowa caucuses have been disputed. (Honest Democratic old-timers will admit that we don’t know whether Dick Gephardt really beat Paul Simon in 1988.) When precinct-level volunteers send in results, and political party leaders compile the vote or delegate totals without any recount mechanism, the process looks flawed. You can’t blame people for saying the first-in-the-nation contest should yield some reliable result.

John Deeth makes a lot of excuses for the Iowa GOP today. “I really believe that Strawn and Crew did the best job they could tracking this stuff down.” Then why did Radio Iowa reporters find county chairs who had no clue precincts in their counties were missing?

Deeth points out many reasons why it’s hard to run such a big statewide show with party volunteers. All the more reason to reform the Iowa caucuses or to let states with real primaries go first.

Incidentally, you can download a spreadsheet with results for 1,766 Republican precincts at the Iowa GOP website.  

  • hmm

    can’t agree with some of this.

    Too many times, the results from the Iowa caucuses have been disputed. (Honest Democratic old-timers will admit that we don’t know whether Dick Gephardt really beat Paul Simon in 1988.) When precinct-level volunteers send in results, and political party leaders compile the vote or delegate totals without any recount mechanism, the process looks flawed. You can’t blame people for saying the first-in-the-nation contest should yield some reliable result.

    You may be asking for a level of precision that just isn’t possible here. It’s a trade-off between inspection time/multiple trial recounts vs quick-and-dirty reporting.

    For this tiny variability, how are you going to get a “reliable” result? See below.

    BVP: I hope the media now reports that he’s the winner versus Romney’s the winner because when the results were inconclusive, they kept reporting that Romney was the winner.”

    The +8 Romney result was inconclusive and so is this, even if you add the raw numbers associated with the 8 precincts.

    Look at the numbers. -8 (out of 120K +) or +34, or even +69, if you’d like, to include the originally reported 8 precincts.

    a 50-vote fluctuation around 120K votes is 0.04% variability. Let’s say this had been a primary with actual paper ballots. Months would be spent arguing voter intent.

    Instead we have (or had) little scraps of paper w/ a name on it. Even if they weren’t destroyed, I doubt you’d get the same nr twice if you counted them up twice by hand. Legible? Spelling? Lose a scrap of paper?

    As BVP says, he’d like “bragging rights” bc Romney enjoyed the “Romney= winner” reporting post-caucus, not because you can really state that Santorum won, unless you believe that the count process leading up to the precinct reporting was error-free. I don’t. BVP is using the media definition of win.

    This is only a handful of votes compared to ballots cast. Due to the “loose” caucus procedure, it’s inconclusive. If it had been a state-run primary, do you really expect this would have been resolved within six months? If anything, you can argue that the caucus process offers quick resolution, even if unsatisfactory.

    It seems odd that Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn declared Romney the winner on caucuses night, but refuses to declare Santorum the winner after the certification process.

    I think it reflects that he had to call a winner on caucus night, but the vote count was challenged. You’ll be more cautious the second time around when you realize how brittle it all is. That’s one plausible explanation. There were a sufficient nr of inaccuracies in the first round to not accept the raw vote count from these eight precincts. He didn’t know that when the reporters wanted results on 3-Jan.

    The optics on the missing precincts isn’t good, I agree with this. Back in 2008, I noticed that my precinct was reported incorrectly. One Edwards delegate had been awarded to Obama instead. I didn’t particularly care because it would only change the final result by a smidgen, and Obama had clearly won. Obviously, it if had been a virtual tie between Edwards and Obama, it’d be a different story. I can accept that there’s been missing precincts in the past, but it’s an unfortunate issue now.

    I agree w/ you in general about lack of transparency but don’t agree that this is Exhibit A. By all reports, this was an unusually tight race. A different way of putting it is that transparency won’t wipe out the accumulation of human error.

    • calling Santorum the winner

      is accepting that this isn’t a reliable result.

    • agree with this

      transparency won’t wipe out the accumulation of human error

      You’re right, it’s easy to see how small counting or reporting mistakes at the precinct level could be enough to wipe out a 69-vote lead among 121,000 votes cast.

      The process is insecure, though. In larger precincts where dozens or hundreds of people caucus, it wouldn’t be hard for someone to slip extra pieces of paper into the pile. I doubt this happens often, but it could happen because the caucus “ballots” aren’t collected in a secure way like normal election ballots.

      I am not sure I agree that a theoretical recount of real ballots wouldn’t produce a clear winner between Romney and Santorum. About 59,600 Iowans caucused for either Romney or Santorum. We’ve had a bunch of Iowa House and Senate races that were decided by tiny margins out of 10,000 or 20,000 votes cast. My recollection is that recounts rarely changed the margin by more than a handful of votes. Like Coleman/Franken 2008, you would have a functional tie and no certainty about the exact number of votes cast for each candidate, but you’d probably be able to get a clear idea of who had more votes than the other guy.  

      • depends

        on the outcome and the extent of the challenges w/ real ballots. Counting is a measurement process, just as a poll is, just as an exit poll is. The hand count precision is much higher, of course. If the ratio of challenges to overvotes/undervotes/spoiled to the measured margin of victory were high, you’d have some uncertainty, regardless. I’m assuming ballots with all candidates + write-ins for “real” ballots. And you’d be going through all 120K ballots again.

        Generally, a hand count is accepted, even with close results, because we don’t have a more precise method, not because people believe the absolute numbers are necessarily perfect. So it would come down to level of contention.

        I do agree the process should be more transparent overall just to secure confidence, and that’s one of several problems here.  

  • Ridiculous

    that Strawn caved to pressure.

    Nobody claimed that Romney’s +8 was a conclusive, reliable “win.” Only the media called it a win. It was a PR win.

    In elementary science classes, you usually do some sort of frequency experiment for this reason — to see the impact of human error on results.

    “69” may sound large compared to “8,” but in the context of 123K votes, it’s not. Under no circumstances can the count of initial scraps of paper be accorded this degree of precision.

    What you get with the caucus is a quick result, period. If this were to happen in NH or SC, the process would continue while people re-inspected ballots in front of judges, and it would be called a “tie” or “inconclusive.”

    I don’t always agree with John Deeth, but in this case, the best you can hope for is more eyeballs, more volunteer time, more commitment. The other choice is to go to a primary and more modern ballot-counting, but do you really believe that this would have been reported as a clear-cut win for either candidate in this case? Of course not.

    • should have written

      it would be called a “tie” or “inconclusive” in the meantime. Eventually you’d have some sort of certified result, of course, but by that time, the nominee is already in the general.  

    • Craig Robinson has a big megaphone

      and was using it this morning to say Strawn should be removed as Iowa GOP chair. Otherwise I am skeptical that Strawn would have caved.

      Agree that in a sense, this is a tie, and would be functionally a tie even if it were an election with real ballots. But at least you would have more secure vote-counting procedures and a way for people to check the result. Staging a recount for the Iowa caucuses would be pointless–too many opportunities for too many people to slip extra pieces of paper into the pile to count.

      All the polls leading up to the caucuses showed the race was too close to call. Precinct chairs should have had clear instructions to double-check and triple-check their vote counts in front of multiple observers, then document everything on paper the night of January 3.  

      • agree w/ everything here,

        and I have since seen Robinson’s article calling for Strawn’s resignation. He is doing more damage to the caucus than the eight missing precincts ever could.

        Yes, with a primary, you would get a functional tie while all the re-examination continued in the background. And even after that, you’d have to accept the certification as a lead for X +/- MOE, just like a poll.

        I have always agreed with you that the caucus process is problematic, but more for reasons about voter access to the ballot instead of worrying about precision in a super-close race.

      • Those were the instructions

        The hard part – a bipartisan problem – is getting people to read and follow the instructions. We computer geeks call it RTFM: Read The… Manual.

  • Not making excuses

    just recognizing the difficulty. I’ve been doing the same thing they have all week, I’m just lucky because a have a 97% margin. It’s always been an all volunteer show, it’s just that the national media knows that now.

    • 133 or so

      precincts had different phone report vs Form E results.

      Even if you had all the original scraps of paper, you wouldn’t be fully confident unless you went through each scrap very carefully and everybody agreed about what was written on it. You can’t do a recount here since the “ballots” get scrapped, but you can’t pretend this would be resolved in a timely fashion if this were a conventional election, either.

      The real culprit is that the vote was this close. Counting is hard work. Even if you want to go with +69, this contest makes the list of closest election results in US history. So what if it’s all volunteer? You might not have the stupid situation of eight missing precincts, but that’s about it.

    • can you imagine

      an Iowa Democratic county chair not being aware that paperwork is missing from one or more precincts in the area? There’s no excuse for GOP county chairs learning about the missing data from Radio Iowa correspondents this morning. I think Strawn/Olsen do not deserve the benefit of the doubt that they did the best they could.

      I think the Iowa Democratic Party could do more to make the caucuses seem legitimate too. What is the reason for not releasing attendance figures by precinct location or at least by county? Right now no one can prove or disprove that 25,000+ Iowa Democrats showed up to caucus on January 3. If we had attendance figures by county or caucus site, outsiders could double-check the math. If I were Sue Dvorsky I wouldn’t want to leave any questions open about whether the IDP accurately reported the number of Democrats who caucused.

      • I've always assumed that this

        What is the reason for not releasing attendance figures by precinct location or at least by county? Right now no one can prove or disprove that 25,000+ Iowa Democrats showed up to caucus on January 3. If we had attendance figures by county or caucus site, outsiders could double-check the math. If I were Sue Dvorsky I wouldn’t want to leave any questions open about whether the IDP accurately reported the number of Democrats who caucused.

        is “proprietary” information that’s used to curry favor the next time w/ prospective candidates, in the same way lists of previous caucus attendents are sold for major $$$ (far more than obtaining a voter list from the SOS).

        That doesn’t make it right, and certainly doesn’t inspire any confidence.

        • I hope that's the explanation

          because the alternative (they exaggerated the statewide attendance number and don’t want anyone to know) is worse.

          • have you considered

            perhaps it’s both 😉

            lousy turnout << 25K

            hoarding info for personal gain

            or perhaps you’re becoming quite the optimist.

            • quite possibly

              could be both. It’s hard to think of a good reason for keeping that information under wraps.

              • Probably

                and I don’t have confirmation on this, but my bet is because NH SoS Bill Gardner thinks that makes it an election.

                IDP released county attendance in 2004, and I extensivel number crunched it late in 2007 for a pre-caucus story. But they turned me down in `08 when I wanted to re-do the same story. (2008 Johnson County attendance was 18,363. Exactly.) That was two chairs ago so it ain’t a Dvorsky thing.

                • caucus night

                  a county turnout spreadsheet was posted at either the “results” site that is now a gambling op or at IDP’s home. It was taken down hours later. I did grab a copy, although I’m not sure where it is right this second. Also, the CRG (I think) posted precinct attendance nrs for Linn and Johnson, but that was taken down as well, by request, I assume.

                  I also tracked online reporting at different sites for a while after the caucus for precinct-level detail. It was interesting to see that many people reporting were hazy on the details only hours after leaving the caucus. I think it was … can’t remember …

                  I don’t know about statewide, but in SW IA, the Obama campaign collected the most accurate data, I’m sure, and I suspect they didn’t necessarily fully share w/ IDP. I know of several precincts where an Obama campaign observer reported the sequence of events taking place via headpiece to command central.

                • it can't have anything to do with NH

                  because the Iowa Republicans release attendance data, and that causes no issues with Bill Gardner calling caucuses an election.

  • Steffen Schmidt

    Is the Iowa Caucus Miscount a Big Problem?


    When you have over 1,700 reporting precincts the possibility of error is very large. In fact, in almost all elections the results are only approximations of how people voted. Every vote should count but in fact, given human and technological error, final results are almost always only approximations.

    When the vote is VERY close as in the Florida election for President in 2000 it becomes a HUGE issue. When the vote is squeaky close as it was in the 2012 Iowa Caucuses it becomes a big deal again. HOWEVER, the Iowa caucuses are mostly a media event. No delegates are selected. It’s like a very extensive public opinion poll. YET, we give it huge significance because it is the first event. The probability that Rick Santorum won and not Mitt Romney made no real difference because Romney was the untouchable front runner in New Hampshire already. Santorum would not have won New Hampshire even if he had been decaled the winner in Iowa.

    The only way the Iowa results make a difference in the history books is that Romney was declared the first non-incumbent republican to win Iowa AND New Hampshire back-to-back. Other than that it makes no difference. The Iowa caucuses still did a great job in winnowing the field and giving candidates, voters, and the news media the opportunity to scrutinize each contender.

    Exactly.

    People are really going overboard on this, and Robinson is an ass.

    The biggest problem is the missing 8 precincts, which wouldn’t have mattered if it had not been a split decision. So, as Schmidt writes, the process will have to tighten up.

    • LOL

      Anyone else get a kick out of the fact that Governor Ray got a vote?  I really would want to meet the person who would spend two hours or more at a caucus and decide in the end after all the ads, speeches etc……”I’m voting for Bob Ray!”

      Shame on the Lee County GOP for dropping the ball as well.  

      • I guess

        Bloom forgot to mention in his article that Iowans in your part of the state like to wipe their butts with important caucus forms.

        I thought the comments by the GOP chair in Lee were pretty funny: “the world is worrying about four pieces of paper.”

      • the funniest write-in

        I’ve seen was in 2010.

        Bile Saler

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