Iowa caucus review leader in denial, but two insiders call out "complex" Democratic math

Although the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Caucus Review Committee continues to downplay the need to rethink how the Iowa caucuses work, some committee members are unwilling to let big questions be taken off the table.


INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

For months, Iowa Democratic Party leaders have signaled that they would embrace improvements in training and technology but are not open to larger changes, which could make precinct caucuses more inclusive and a better reflection of voter preferences.

The Caucus Review Committee held its second meeting on June 25. Since I was unable to attend, I greatly appreciated the write-up by Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich.

Few people have immersed themselves in the caucuses more than former state party chair Sue Dvorsky and Norm Sterzenbach, who served as the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus director during the 2008 cycle and subsequently as executive director. During Saturday’s meeting, they questioned elements of the system that the party hasn’t changed for four decades: namely how delegates are allocated to precincts and how delegates are assigned to presidential candidates on caucus night.

Obradovich reported in her June 27 column,

“I don’t understand. And I’m fairly smart and I have done this a long time. I can’t explain it. I can’t explain our math,” Dvorsky said. “So it’s not a matter of being corrupt, it’s not a matter of being rigged. It’s a matter of being too complex.” […]

Norm Sterzenbach, former Iowa Democratic Party executive director and another veteran of caucuses, said the system of allocating delegates to each precinct based on the past two election results leads to distrust. “It is so complex that it gives the appearance of corruption,” he said.

Under the current system, a precinct might have 1,000 people show up on caucus night, but because of past election results, a precinct with only a few hundred people gets more delegates.

That, Sterzenbach said, is “a difficult concept to understand in terms of how we talk about modern democracy, one person, one vote.”

He said the caucus review must include difficult issues such as whether to continue having preference groups at caucuses rather than a simple straw vote like Iowa Republicans have. If the committee doesn’t at least discuss those issues, he said, “I’m afraid we are just going to end up rearranging the chairs on the Titanic while the bigger issues are going to be decided for us by other people because we won’t do it ourselves.”

Sterzenbach is alluding to the reality that many members of the Democratic National Committee would prefer to eliminate caucuses for the purposes of presidential selection. They will seize on evidence from this year’s primary season to bolster their case that caucuses in Iowa and elsewhere exclude too many voters and can produce skewed results that don’t reflect the sentiments of rank-and-file Democrats.

Obradovich paraphrased Iowa Democratic Party Rules Committee Chair Sandy Dockendorff as saying “caucus math simply doesn’t work very well when there are just two competitive candidates locked in a close race.” I have news for Dockendorff: it didn’t work very well in my precinct in 1988, when supporters of Michael Dukakis and Bruce Babbitt gamed the system to get as many delegates for Babbitt as for Paul Simon, who had far more caucus-goers in his preference group.

It also didn’t work very well in 2004, when it took more than twice as many caucus-goers in Johnson County to elect a state delegate as it did in dozens of smaller counties. Nor did it work very well in 2008, when counties dominated by college towns were again “the hardest places to elect state delegates.” For that matter, the size of the Democratic field was not the reason this year’s caucus-goers in Johnson County made up 11.4 percent of all Democratic caucus attendees but only managed to influence 6.5 percent of the state delegates.

In various ways that play out in hundreds of precincts every cycle, Iowa Democratic caucus math is inconsistent with the “one person, one vote” principle we would insist on in any other political contest.

DISCOUNTING REALITY

Sterzenbach has good reason to be concerned the Caucus Review Committee may sidestep these fundamental issues. Chair Dave Nagle indicated before the first meeting that big changes were unlikely, and judging by his comments on the June 17 episode of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program, he remains in denial about the system’s flaws. You can watch the video or read the transcript here. Excerpts:

[James Q.] Lynch: Both of you have talked about party building and the grassroots process here. But I’m wondering if the caucuses haven’t been a victim of their own success. You had 187,000 people turn out this year. But in the contested U.S. Senate race earlier this month, 97,000, 98,000 democrats voted. There seems to be a real drop off after the caucuses. How do you maintain that enthusiasm and that energy, Dave Nagle, and keep building the party and the grassroots?

Nagle: That’s a very good point because one of the criticisms of the caucuses is only this year I think roughly 30% of the democrats, registered democrats, registered republicans participated in their respective caucuses. And people say, well we ought to go to a primary and everybody can vote. Well, that’s not true, first of all. But secondly it really depends on the race. Now if you want to go back to 2014 and look at the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses or 2012 rather, participation was way down, I think it was around the 75,000. So part of it is generated by what the contest is. If you have a competitive contest on the democratic side in the primary there weren’t the heated contests that generate a larger turnout. But the fact that people choose to participate in the caucus I don’t think is a sign against them, I think it’s a sign of affirmation of their importance.

Lynch: But does the interest in the process drop off then and it doesn’t carry through into the primary?

Nagle: Well, to a certain extent everybody is interested in the president, fewer or less people are interested in who their senator is, fewer less are interested in who the Congress representative is and fewer less state representative, state senators. So as you go down the ballot the interest of the public generally has a tendency to wane anyway.

For the record, turnout for this year’s Democratic caucuses was around 171,000; nearly 187,000 attended Republican caucuses. Also, turnout for the 2012 Iowa Democratic caucuses was roughly 25,000 according to official numbers–which could not be confirmed, because the state party refused to release turnout figures at the county and precinct level.

While relatively low statewide turnout for this year’s June 7 primary was notable, I take issue with the presumption in Lynch’s question that the February 1 turnout points to the “success” of the Iowa caucuses.

I’ll keep repeating it until influential Iowa Democrats admit it: many thousands of politically engaged Iowans cannot attend their precinct caucuses because of work or family obligations, physical limitations, lack of transportation, and other barriers. All of those people would be able to cast early or election-day ballots in a primary.

That fact is indisputable, especially in light of the disparate turnout for primaries and caucuses in Nebraska and Washington this year.

Comparing turnout for the Iowa caucuses and the April 26 Connecticut primary also points to a huge disenfranchisement problem here, which Nagle and other party leaders do not acknowledge.

Obviously, a competitive presidential race will generate more public interest than most primaries for down-ballot offices will. So when we’re talking about the future of the Iowa caucuses, we should’t ask, “Why did more Democrats caucus in February than vote in the June primary?” We should ask, “How many Iowans wanted to express a preference for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Martin O’Malley, but could not do so?”

CONVENIENT PLATITUDES

During the “Iowa Press” discussion, Nagle asserted that the caucus is “doing the public a service by having strong political parties.” Whether the system actually plays the party-building role long attributed to it is debatable.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson then zeroed in on an extremely important question.

Henderson: When you convened your working group to review the caucuses for the Democratic Party it was said nothing was off the table.

Nagle: That’s correct.

Henderson: And then about 20 minutes later the thing that was taken off the table was a head count. Why don’t democrats concede that they should take a head count of how many people are there?

Borg: At the caucuses.

Henderson: At the caucuses.

Nagle: Because that’s not our system. Our system is designed —

Borg: But Kay’s asking, Dave, why not change the system?

Nagle: Because, well first of all we’d have to get the DNC’s permission. But the second is we think by using delegates from precincts to county that we actually build a stronger party and we incorporate more grassroots input to it. Now there has been some criticisms of delegate equivalency. But if you stop and look at how delegate equivalency, how people are elected from an individual precinct, it’s based on proportional representation, the same as our representatives, the same as our state senators, the same as our city council people and it works and it has worked. And the fact that this race was close, big races never bring any criticism to the process, the fact that this race was close, as you found out in 2012, brings a lot of scrutiny. But the reality is that the results we found in the caucuses have been proven throughout the entire process. So we’re not going to do I don’t think a head count. Now I’m still open if somebody can come and make a persuasive argument. But if you were at the first meeting — pardon?

Yet again, Iowa Democrats are told we can’t have nice things because the Democratic National Committee won’t let us. How about showing some leadership and working with the DNC toward changes that would make the system more representative?

We don’t incorporate “more grassroots input” when we prevent thousands of people from participating.

Nagle is way off base to claim that the caucuses function as “proportional representation” like elections for state lawmakers and city council members. The candidate who receives the most votes wins every state legislative or local election. In contrast, Democratic caucus math does not allow us to determine which candidate receives the most votes. Two Polk County precincts with almost the same number of voters for Clinton and Sanders produced a tied result in one and a 60-40 win for Clinton in the other. A West Des Moines precinct with nearly twice as many Clinton supporters was reported as a tie between the candidates. In a different West Des Moines precinct, a slight advantage in raw numbers gave Sanders twice as many delegates as Clinton. (Click here for details on all of those precinct-level outcomes.)

Twitter user @nwfisch described two Dubuque County precincts that produced similarly unrepresentative results this year. In one precinct that was assigned three county delegates, 150 caucus-goers supported Sanders and just 50 supported Clinton. The delegates split two to one because Clinton was viable. A different precinct had 68 caucus-goers for Clinton and 67 for Sanders. Although caucus night turnout was lower there, that precinct had been assigned seven county delegates because of Democratic performance in the previous two general elections. So Clinton received four delegates, Sanders three.

Taking those two precincts together, Clinton and Sanders each ended up with five Dubuque County delegates, even though 217 people turned out for Sanders and just 118 for Clinton.

As @nwfisch observed, “there’s no real reward for increasing turnout. It didn’t matter if it was 51-50 […] or 150-50 [in the one precinct]. Sanders would only net one delegate. That’s frankly wrong and probably why a lot were turned off by [the] process.”

If those Dubuque precincts were part of a city council ward or Iowa House district, every person’s vote would be counted, and the candidate with a plurality would win. In a straw poll caucus, every Clinton or Sanders supporter anywhere would have equal influence on the statewide result.

The Iowa Public Television panel didn’t have a chance to challenge Nagle’s assertions about “proportional representation,” but Henderson did press him on a different point:

Henderson: Mr. Oman’s party does a head count. Why? If it’s so great to have delegate equivalence why do republicans have a head count?

[Republican insider David] Oman: Well, we’ve agreed and chairs and co-chairs before us have agreed that we celebrate the other party’s choice, we respect and honor that and I’m not here to tell the Democratic Party how to run a caucus. I’m glad ours is a little more simple. It’s perhaps the world’s biggest straw poll. We don’t need a slide rule and abacus and a calculator and all the rest to figure it all out. But we verify, we are able to verify, as we talked about a couple of minutes ago, who is there, how many are there, their preference for a presidential nominee of our party, it is all written down, it’s all reported in as I mentioned and those names then exist and we’re able to follow up and talk with them through the rest of the campaign. That’s a good process.

Henderson: And that’s the point that the Sanders folks make, there was no head count, there was no way to recount a race that was razor thin.

Nagle: Well, here’s the other point about the reason we do it different from the republicans, and I respect their process, our party respects their process. But we also, in the concept of a caucus with the election of delegates, seek to reach a consensus. There’s a magic threshold in the democratic caucus called the 15% rule. You have to have 15% in order to qualify to elect a delegate. But you don’t do that just by walking in. You, in the Democratic Party, get a second choice. And the reason for that is our party is trying to build a consensus on who the candidate or candidates should be that advance. And so if you go in there and you were for O’Malley and you find out that you’re the only one in the county that was, then you have a chance to consider Sanders, you have a chance to consider Clinton, you have a chance to go independent on this scenario. So part of the reason we do it the way we do is we find that it helps build consensus as we move through the process.

“Magic,” or arbitrary?

Philosophically, I have a problem with the Iowa Democratic Party telling me I can express a preference for the candidate of my choice only if at least 15 percent of my neighbors agree with me. The Republican straw poll approach doesn’t discount the views of non-conformists.

Moreover, first-hand observations and conversations with scores of caucus-goers have convinced me that many people don’t get a warm and fuzzy consensus vibe from the experience. They often leave angry and frustrated.

“Iowa Press” host Dean Borg alluded to that phenomenon, asking about political “novices” who are “turned off by what they see” at the precinct caucuses. Nagle rejected the premise of Borg’s question and in effect admitted what I have suspected for months: he doesn’t want the Caucus Review Committee to consider any major reforms.

Borg: I’m talking about, Dave Nagle, coin flips and 15% rule, people don’t understand that across the world. They’re used to organized elections.

Nagle: Well, I’m sorry. Democracy is hard and I’d like to make it easy for everybody so they could just go in and mindlessly cast a ballot and it takes two minutes and out the door they go.

I’m pausing here to let that sink in. A former member of Congress and chair of the Iowa Democratic Party thinks spending a couple of minutes filling out a ballot is mindless, not real democracy. Nagle finds a virtue in making it inconvenient for people to express their preference in the first presidential contest.

Back to the “Iowa Press” transcript:

Borg: I’m talking about, Dave Nagle, coin flips and 15% rule, people don’t understand that across the world. They’re used to organized elections.

Nagle: Well, I’m sorry. Democracy is hard and I’d like to make it easy for everybody so they could just go in and mindlessly cast a ballot and it takes two minutes and out the door they go. But the reason we start in Iowa is because the bulk of the people that attend, 70%, 80% of the people that go to caucuses, are experienced. They have been there before. And that’s not important by itself but what is important is when we talk about being first-in-the-nation we’re bringing an electorate that has a well-earned reputation for being informed about issues, that is experienced in meeting people who say I want to be your president, evaluating them, living with the consequences of those decisions in subsequent elections. And so the fact that new people come in and they find it a little complex doesn’t alarm me because they can learn it and it’s not rocket science or I wouldn’t be involved in it.

Henderson: Let’s talk about a few changes that might be considered. Would you consider ranked choice balloting where you would pick your first choice, your second choice and your third choice?

Nagle: Well, that’s not something we’ve talked about but if the committee wants to take it up I’m certainly open to it. But I do think however we’re still going to stay, probably stay with the delegate equivalency and the delegate selection process that we have. Now how we select those delegates we can look at that. It hasn’t been mentioned but if someone wants to present it to us we’ll certainly consider it and weigh it. […]

Henderson: And you raise one of the complaints about the venues that were chosen. Is it time to, for instance, have a state law that would require public buildings to be open for these events? Because that is one of the big problems was the venues, number one, and some of the venues had no connectivity so they could not use that little phone that you picked up.

Borg: Dave Nagle, why don’t you take that one?

Nagle: Well, I think you hit on something. We had a conversation yesterday and we’ve had several before, these are political party operations and while we love the government and we want to lead the government we have a real reservation about having the government step in and starting to run the caucuses or getting any kind of a lever of control on them. Nevertheless, as one of the things that clearly has emerged from our first meeting was we need bigger venues, we need better facilities, we need —

Henderson: How do you get them?

Nagle: We need better training. We might have to go to the legislature to do it. We might have to look at organizations like the chambers and union halls to try to expand the facilities. But we have a subcommittee on resources and that’s one of the things we’re looking at. If the democrats had a problem here it wasn’t necessarily the accuracy of the counting at the end, it was the jam at the door trying to get in and that’s something we have to address. […]

The “jam at the door” was a problem in many precincts, which started an hour or two behind schedule because of inefficient check-in procedures.

Too bad Nagle discounts the Iowans who never made it to the door, because they had to work on February 1, or could not leave home for some other reason.

In any event, as John Deeth pointed out in February, “The fundamental problem on caucus night was, and will continue to be, that enough rooms that are big enough simply do not exist. Even if the parties GET all the biggest rooms, it’s only enough to make bad situations slightly less bad.” Given that reality, the Iowa Democratic Party’s failure “to seriously consider true absentee voting” is unfortunate. “If we have half the space we actually need…then we have to get half the votes cast early. Get the people who Just Want To Vote out of the way…and let the people who actually want to spend the evening deal with WHO the delegates are, platform, etc.”

I wholeheartedly agree. For what it’s worth, I still haven’t heard a good explanation for why Deeth was not invited to join the Caucus Review Committee, despite having organized this year’s Democratic caucuses in Johnson County.

Absentee ballot reform did not come up at the committee’s June 25 meeting. John McCormally and Evan Burger will spearhead the effort to consider options for voters who cannot attend their precinct caucus in person. Melanie Cloud Gross, Penny Rosfjord, Sandy Dockendorff, Abby Finkenauer, Ken Sagar, and Burger will serve on an Absentee Ballot Subcommittee. Speaking by phone yesterday, Burger told me the subcommittee has not met yet, but he has already started working on what he considers an important reform: “I had a very good conversation with the Nebraska Democrats’ executive director about their process over there… just kind of basic information gathering, and I have notes. But I’m waiting on, to get the go ahead for like, ok, this is the plan for the subcommittee.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

A revealing exchange came near the end of the “Iowa Press” discussion:

Henderson: What about national rules that standardize the process for all primaries and all caucuses? Would Iowa [R]epublicans go along if there were standard rules for every contest that match from state to state so people would know going in what the rules of the game are everywhere in the country? […]

Nagle: I’ve got to, if I could, I’ve just got to come in on that. I may be John C. Calhoun, state’s rights, but I think that the function of a federal system is to allow states to experiment and you lose the diversity and the process that necessarily might fit in South Carolina wouldn’t fit in Iowa. So I’d have some real reservations about the uniformity because it would destroy creativity and diversity.

Good God, man. Don’t invoke the name of Calhoun, best known for devoting “much of his remarkable intellectual energy to defending slavery.” States’ rights as Calhoun understood the concept was terrible for this country. For most of U.S. history, states’ rights in the context of voting has been code for letting states disenfranchise a disfavored minority.

“Creativity” and “diversity” are words with strongly positive connotations in progressive circles. But what is admirable about a system that can distort voter preferences and in a close race may obscure which candidate turned out more supporters on the big night? We would never tolerate that kind of “creativity” when choosing among candidates for other federal, state, or local offices.

Iowa Democrats need to stop pretending that every unique and “quirky” feature of our caucuses has value. We don’t need to celebrate “nuance” and “idiosyncrasies,” which “don’t always lend themselves to clear results.”

Thanks to Dvorsky and Sterzenbach for saying out loud that complex mathematical formulas make no sense to most people and create the appearance of corruption. Thanks also to Burger and any others on the Caucus Review Committee who take seriously the goal of making our caucuses more fair and accessible, while Nagle prefers to tinker around the edges.

  • Nagle and Goldman, thinking alike

    “A former member of Congress and chair of the Iowa Democratic Party thinks spending a couple of minutes filling out a ballot is mindless, not real democracy “-

    He’s not the only one who thinks that way.

    “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” Emma Goldman

    • still

      as Democrats we should be for lowering barriers to expressing a political preference–not making it harder for people to participate.

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