How the Iowa Caucuses were Rigged

Although I do not agree with all of this this author’s conclusions, the post provides a window onto the anger many Iowa Democrats feel about a system that reports only delegate counts from precinct caucuses, not raw supporter numbers that could be aggregated to reveal which candidate turned out more people statewide. -promoted by desmoinesdem

How the Iowa Caucuses Were Rigged, and What We Can Do About it.

The Iowa caucuses were rigged against Bernie Sanders. The Iowa Democratic Party did not purposefully rig them against him; the rules were put into place before anyone knew he was planning to run. They were rigged, though, against anyone who ran a campaign like Bernie Sanders, one that mobilized thousands of new voters and brought them into the party. One would think that such a campaign would be welcomed by the Democratic Party establishment in Iowa, including our state legislators and state party officials, but in fact such a campaign would threaten their control of the state party. They would apparently prefer to preside over an unpopular party that is in danger of becoming a minority at every level of government, handing the state of Iowa entirely over to the Republicans.

The caucus was rigged by giving disproportionate numbers of delegates to those precincts with a past record of voting Democratic, i.e. by casting votes for candidates of the current party establishment. When the party reported caucus returns, they did not report the number of caucus attenders, but the number of “delegate equivalents” in the precinct. Precincts that had disproportionate numbers of relatively elderly Democrats with a record of voting in partisan elections were given more delegates than precincts with many new caucus attenders but historically low levels of voter turnout.

This skewed the results in favor of Hillary Clinton, who did well in precincts that had historically high levels of Democratic turnout and which as a consequence had more delegates. Most caucus attenders assumed that everyone’s vote for a delegate had equal weight across the state and would be reflected in the “delegate equivalent” count, but that is untrue. The principle, fundamental to a democracy, of “one person one vote” was fundamentally undermined by the rigged delegate selection rules. Put in the simplest terms, a vote for Hillary Clinton was worth more than a vote for Bernie Sanders.

That’s why Hillary Clinton was declared the “winner” of the Iowa caucuses with a one quarter of one percent lead in the number of delegate equivalents. That is why, throughout the rest of the campaign, Iowa was put up on the maps on MSNBC and CNN as a “win” for Clinton, even though more caucus attenders supported Sanders than Clinton. In the normal sense of the word “win”, Bernie Sanders was the winner in Iowa. That is why the party establishment is keeping the raw number of attenders a secret: to disguise the fact that they in practice rigged the caucuses against Sanders and for Clinton.

How the value of a Sanders vote depended on which caucus you attended can be illustrated by the results from two caucuses that I am familiar with in Iowa City. The numbers here are rounded off, and do not include the initial number of attenders who supported a non-viable candidate or were uncommitted. One precinct, with a relatively stable population and a history of voting Democratic, was allocated eleven delegates to be divided proportionately between 306 Clinton supporters and 285 Sanders supporters–roughly 54 caucus attenders per delegate. In the other precinct, one with many transient residents and low voter turnout in past elections, 540 Sanders caucus attenders and 90 Clinton caucus attenders were allocated only 7 delegates among them. In that precinct it took 90 caucus attenders instead of 54 to achieve one delegate in the state party’s “delegate equivalent” reporting. This is obviously undemocratic, or to put it another way, “rigged”.

There are many other ways in which the Iowa presidential caucus is undemocratic and unfair, some of them forcefully pointed out by Hillary Clinton in 2008. It discriminates against those with child care responsibilities, or who work in the evening, or have mobility problems that prevent them from getting out in the winter. There are no absentee ballots. The caucus is no longer a friendly neighborhood chat among neighbors about who should be president, but a chaotic proceeding that the Democratic Party is entirely incapable of managing. It is fundamental to a democracy to have decision making procedures that are fair and transparent, but the Iowa caucuses have become chaotic because of a lack of trained staff. It is entirely implausible to argue now that the caucus attenders are counted accurately and the “delegate equivalents” selected accordingly. Even when they are selected accurately, the process is secretive and unfair.

Maintaining our “first in the nation status” is not an adequate justification for undemocratic procedures. Iowa should move to a primary even at the risk of losing our treasured status, and turn the procedures over to public officials who are accountable legally for conducting fair and honest elections. If we are to maintain the caucuses, the state party should at the very least ensure that the “delegate equivalent” numbers are directly proportional to the number of caucus attenders supporting each viable candidate, and that the number of attenders is reported to the public so that they can make up their minds about the fairness of the delegate selection process.

Jeff Cox
From The Prairie Progressive, Summer 2016
Hard copy subscriptions available for $12/yr.
Box 1945, Iowa City IA. 52244

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  • you raise some important points

    but your analysis is odd in several respects. For one thing, you seem not to realize that Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly benefited from the increased barriers to participation associated with caucuses almost everywhere they were held. The only caucus states Clinton won were Iowa (barely) and Nevada.

    Sanders had lopsided victories in almost every other caucus state, including Nebraska and Washington, where Clinton won primaries held later in the season. That would seem to indicate that people who are excluded from participating in caucuses, such as shift workers and elderly people, were more likely to lean toward Clinton than Sanders.

    Connecticut and Iowa have similar sized voting populations, yet far more people participated in the Connecticut Democratic primary than in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. If we had turnout on the level of Connecticut’s for our caucuses, Clinton arguably would have done better.

    I share many of your concerns about the barriers to participating in the caucuses, which the Iowa Democratic Party has historically done too little to address.

    I also am troubled by reporting results only in terms of county delegates, because the complicated Iowa caucus math can distort the preferences of people in the room. That said, there is no evidence that at a precinct level, Sanders was hurt more by caucus math than Clinton was. The biggest problem for him was that one of his best counties (Johnson) contributed more than 11 percent of caucus-goers but influenced only 6.5 percent of state delegates.

    I don’t agree with your explanation for why the state party sticks with the current Iowa caucus rules. They are not trying to rig the caucuses against a candidate like Bernie Sanders. They believe that keeping Iowa first requires us not to upset the New Hampshire secretary of state, and reforms to make the caucuses more representative would make Iowa too much like a primary.

    • one person one vote in the Iowa caucuses

      The essential point is not whether one system hurts one candidate more than another. The point is that each caucus attender should have equal weight in producing the result. “Delegate equivalent” reports should reflect, proportionally, the percentage of attenders for each viable candidate. It worked against Sanders this time, but it could work against someone else next time. Almost all caucus attenders assumed that their attendance would have equal weight with other caucus attenders around the state. That was not true, a point no one denies who is aware of it. The principle of “one person, one vote” should apply even when the votes are being cast for delegates. There is no reason why the Iowa Democratic Party can’t come up with caucus math that is fair, rather than unfair.

  • For the record:

    I reported out the Johnson County turnout numbers by precinct.

    Also for the record: The only complaints I got about hostility between the two big campaigns on caucus night were caused by Jeff Cox’s behavior. He wasn’t satisfied with a 5-1 delegate split for Bernie in his precinct: he wanted the humiliation of a Hillary shutout. Jeff demanded a second and then a third recount, in the hopes that someone would give up and go home, and caused a near-meltdown at his precinct.

    • incompetent caucus organizers

      The argument that these recounts were meant to “humiliate” Clinton attenders is ridiculous, but the poster raises a good point. The recounts were meant to get a fair count–one delegate was at stake, and one delegate mattered a lot in this election. In addition to the many problems with the caucus, the Johnson County Democrats were just incompetent at counting the votes. The precinct chair tried his best, but he was overwhelmed. Imagine if Jimmy Carter had been a caucus observer, reporting back to the Carter Center in Atlanta ; he would have to report that the organizers of the Johnson County caucuses were incompetent, unable to to organize a a caucus where the votes are even counted correctly.