One suburban caucus chair's experience and what it means for Iowa

Amber Gustafson co-chaired her precinct caucus in Ankeny. -promoted by Laura Belin

I want to share my experience Monday night as a caucus co-chair at Crocker 1 Precinct in Polk County because the story of the caucuses as a chaotic dumpster fire has grown legs and is now running a cross-country ultra-marathon. Information has been scarce, and in that absence, lies, conspiracies and fake news are multiplying.

Perhaps my perspective will give you insight into one, regular, run-of-the-mill precinct and the challenges we faced – and also the reality of how hard we worked to make the caucus a success.

Our caucus took place at one of the local elementary schools in our suburb of Ankeny. Total attendance was 176, quite close to the number we had in 2016, but we had many new faces and almost ran out of voter registration forms. We had been told to expect 250 at our site, so our lower attendance was somewhat surprising.

We began the process by counting our attendees. We had pre-counted the chairs and set them up in three groups of ten rows with ten chairs in each row. Counting was quick and easy. We counted out loud over the mic three times to be sure, then verified with the campaign precinct captains. All agreed on our total.

We then passed out our Presidential Preference Cards–a new addition to the 2020 caucuses–which were numbered. We had separated them into groups of ten ahead of time, so they could easily be passed down the aisles. Note: the paper was slippery and sticky, so we were very carful to count and re-count. The numbering system was helpful. I got card #176 as chair.

After that, we set the timer for 15 minutes and instructed people to move to their preference groups within the gym. Areas for each candidate were clearly labeled. We had attendees take their chairs with them and set up rows in their preference groups, which made counting so much easier.

The first alignment was very quick and easy. Everyone seemed to have a strong sense of where they wanted to go in their first movement. We did have a few uncommitteds. We did not have anyone form a group for any candidate not in the race, such as Cory Booker.

After the first alignment we had four viable groups: Elizabeth Warren (30 people), Joe Biden (28), Amy Klobuchar (40), and Pete Buttigieg (37). Bernie Sanders was not viable in our caucus (17). The viability threshold was 24 (15 percent of 176 attendees). We had each preference group count off, then announced on the mic the total number and whether or not that group was viable. There was an audible gasp from the room when Sanders was not viable. That was as rowdy as it got! 😉

After the first alignment, we collected the signed and completed preference cards from those in the four viable groups and placed them in clear ziplock bags labeled with the respective candidates’ names. Then we set the timer for the second alignment. (Under new rules, only caucus-goers in non-viable groups could make a second choice.)

After the first alignment, a few people chose to leave rather than realign. We collected their cards, as instructed. Second alignment (which included short speeches from the campaigns and the full 15 minutes for sorting) did not create any new viable groups, only added to the strength of the already-viable groups.

Our final count was Biden (31), Pete (43), Klobuchar (50), Warren (46). We collected the new cards, now filled out with their second preferences, and added them to the cards for the already-viable groups.

Our precinct had six county convention delegates to award. Klobuchar and Warren each received two. Biden and Pete each received one. Results were announced over the mic and verified by the campaign precinct captains.

By this point it was getting late and people were getting antsy. We finished up the rest of the party business and packed up. But realized about half an hour later that we forgot the important task of reporting our results to the party.

I attended two caucus trainings, each lasting about two hours. Reporting was only lightly touched upon. Much more time was spent on the intricacies of the math, which turned out to be very simple with the caucus math worksheet and a calculator.

Full disclosure: as co-chair, I never used the app. Unfortunately, I was never able to access the app. Despite numerous requests in the weeks leading up to the caucus, I never received the link to download. On the day of the caucus I was told “sorry, it’s just not going to happen. report your results by phone.” No instructions on phone reporting were given, though they were printed in the Caucus Manual. At least one other precinct chair in my community ended up in the same predicament.

My co-chair did have the app on his phone but had struggled with using it. I called him right away and asked him to call in the results, which he agreed to do. Around that time, I began to notice on Twitter that others were having issues with the app and the hotline.

I called the hotline three times Monday night with quick questions (one regarding voter registration, one about the preference cards, one about caucus math). The first two times I connected quickly. The third time I was on hold for twelve to fifteen minutes before I gave up and searched my handbook for the answer.

Later I emailed, tweeted and texted our results to contacts within the party. At about midnight I received a text with a new email address, where I was to send photos of the hard-copy math sheet from our precinct. I did so right away.

Around 1:00 am, I got a phone call from a very frazzled and young volunteer calling from a loud boiler room, asking me to give my counts over the phone. I did so and I was glad I was still awake to take the call. I am guessing not a lot of chairs were.

Why am I sharing this information? First and foremost, I want to honor the work of all the volunteers who helped make our caucus so successful. National media have pushed an “incompetence and chaos” narrative, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I want to give special honor to the campaign precinct captains. Some are my neighbors, others were volunteers from out of state. Every one was professional, organized, well-trained, kind, supportive, fun, gracious, and patient as we navigated the many changes to the caucuses. Biden, Pete, Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders, Yang – you should all be proud!

Second, I share this story because I care deeply about election fairness, security, and accuracy. I ran for office in 2018, and God willing, I might run again some day. From all that I have seen, the weak link in this whole chain was this problematic app, its roll out, the incomplete training and the lack of access to it. There were precinct chairs who had concerns. We should have voiced them more forcefully.

I am very thankful the Iowa Democratic Party chose to go the route of the preference cards and the caucus math worksheets, because they provide a paper trail that will allow for an accurate result. Unfortunately, a year of hype and build up does not dovetail well with the process we are now forced to use.

And finally, I wrote this post to remind everyone that all of us, from the state and the county parties to the boots on the ground volunteers, offered up the best of ourselves given the rules, goals, people, resources and and tools at our disposal. Every precinct runs slightly differently but I hope this gives you a glimpse into the efforts we took to be transparent, thorough and accurate in our little corner of Polk County.

I don’t know when we will have our answers. I don’t know if Iowa should continue to go first in this process – probably not, to be honest. It’s no secret that Iowa skews whiter and older than the rest of the country. That alone is reason to change the way things are done. But incompetence (or worse) is not the story anyone should be using to justify removing our first-in-the-nation mantle.

Top photo of the gymnasium at Crocker Elementary in Ankeny during the February 3, 2020 caucuses provided by the author and published with permission.

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  • Thank you for reporting you experience.

    That is what I’ve heard from everyone I know who attended their caucuses. The caucus itself ran smoothly, it was the reporting that was the problem.

  • Thanks, Amber

    More people should write up reports like this. The IDP should collect them and use them for next time. The critics (many are just jealous) need to do more than gripe. They need a better idea but that has been elusive.
    As for being too white, let’s not reduce all of politics to a coloring contest.

  • Here's another one

    Des Moines 20 (Harding Middle School)
    Before I say anything else, let me ask BH for some of your usually-high quality investigative skills to give us all a better look inside the ‘black box’ that was IDP’s methodology ahead of this problematic episode.
    How about some interviews with the ‘digital directors’ of the party who blessed this operation. How about some ISU or Drake professor giving us the forensics of how this viability threshold calculation was arrived at.
    How about some thoughts from the many caucus chairs around the state.
    I know this is completely embarrassing for Iowa Dems® but hey, you called the tune. I think a deeper dive into who, what, why, where, when (and how much$) is called for here.
    ok..Polk 20:
    182 Attendees. (final alignment numbers)
    SANDERS 99
    WARREN 39
    BIDEN 32
    YANG 0
    SDE result: Sanders 4 delegates, Warren 2, Biden 1
    Like many other precincts, our very able captain had insane problems trying to report. (as a former IT guy, I am intimately aware of rollout dynamics for new software, if there is not a thorough public accounting, I would seriously question trusting this party with any responsibility in the future)

    • One more thing....

    • Vote totals

      Does it matter that your vote tallies (170) don’t add up to the total attendees (182). I thought they were supposed to all be accounted for. Did you have 12 people leave or were they undecided?

  • Really?!

    from the article linked above:
    “The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that it offered to analyze the security of the app but the IDP declined. Bob Lord, the DNC’s chief security officer, directly urged Iowa democrats to not use the Shadow app, according to the Wall Street Journal .”

    “We started our engagement with the IDP in August and began requirement gatherings and beginning to develop the app at that point, so we basically had the month of August, September, October, November, and December to do it, though requirements gathering takes a long time, so we didn’t have a final production version of this until pretty close to caucus time,” Niemira said.

    I’m getting a headache. Thousands of volunteers and staff from around the nation came here with true devotion to democracy and the future of our country and this is how we treat them……
    I was going to submit this piece and then I found this:

    In short…they were warned but went ahead anyway.

  • My thanks as well, but simple math?

    I really appreciate your efforts for a thankless job as well as all the precinct chairs across the state. I was really impressed with the way you placed the chairs in 10 rows of 10 to make the count so much easier. And to have the preference cards presorted into stacks of 10. That should be used in future training!
    I have been frustrated in national reporting in how complicated our system is, even to the point of one national reporter saying we have to use calculus to determine viability. It is 15% folks, fifth grade math not really that hard. BUT, with that said, and I don’t know if it was a typo on your part, but 15% of 176 is 26.4 not 24! And according to caucus rules we were instructed to always round up even for fractions under the normal .5, so your viable number should have been 27. I saw from some of the reporting on TV and on line, there were several sites that didn’t do the rounding up correctly. I don’t know the reasoning behind it or how much impact it would really have. Eh, maybe it is complicated!