UPDATE: Troy Price announced on February 12 that he will step down as state party chair once the State Central Committee has chosen a successor.
What began as an embarrassing delay in reporting the Iowa caucus results has become a much bigger scandal for the Iowa Democratic Party.
Relying on misguided legal advice, party leaders are refusing to correct demonstrable errors in how county delegates were assigned in dozens of precincts. Instead, they are taking the untenable position that "incorrect math" or other mistakes made by volunteer precinct chairs "must not be changed to ensure the integrity of the process."
STRIKE ONE: NO RESULTS ON CAUCUS NIGHT OR THE MORNING AFTER
With many Democrats around the country questioning a calendar that starts the nominating process in two overwhelmingly white states, Iowa Democratic Party state chair Troy Price and his team were under pressure to show the world that Iowans deserve our first-in-the-nation status. The caucuses benefit the party and its candidates at all levels. Presidential candidates headline fundraisers and other local events. Their campaigns buy voter files and tickets to major party functions. Staff sometimes help get out the vote for Iowans seeking local or state offices.
Others have covered in detail the ill-fated app, which was supposed to help precinct chairs submit their numbers to the IDP quickly on February 3. Party leaders should not have been secretive about the app's creator, and they should never have selected a vendor who had been paid by presidential campaigns. Compounding the problem, the app was "rudimentary" and not tested adequately before caucus night.
After the app malfunctioned, most precinct chairs resorted to the old school method of calling in their results. That should have been a suitable workaround, but phone lines were overwhelmed, in part by Donald Trump supporters trying to interfere with the process.
A delay in getting results out wasn't the end of the world, though. Speaking to journalists by phone around 1:00 am on caucus night, Price insisted, "The integrity of our process and the results have and always will be our top priority." He downplayed the "reporting issue," saying the problems are "exactly why we have a paper trail and systems in place to uphold the integrity of our process. We are validating every piece of data we have against our paper trail."
Later, IDP communications director Mandy McClure told news organizations the crush of calls delayed the party's "collection of results, but in no way affected the integrity of information gathered or the accuracy of data sets reported." Okay, then.
STRIKE TWO: LITTLE TRANSPARENCY OR LOGIC AS RESULTS WERE RELEASED
The morning of February 4 passed with no official results. Price and other party insiders never made clear why they weren't releasing supporter and delegate totals in small batches, as party workers and volunteers manually verified numbers from precincts.
Around 4 pm the day after the caucuses, the IDP released results for 62 percent of precincts. Those indicated that while more caucus-goers had shown up for Bernie Sanders than for any other candidate, Pete Buttigieg had a small lead in terms of state delegate equivalents–the metric the IDP wanted media to emphasize in their caucus coverage.
Neither Price nor McClure explained why the party wasn't regularly updating its results page as precinct checks continued. Another full day passed before the next big set of numbers dropped, bringing reported results up to 95 percent of precincts. The timing fueled suspicions that the IDP was looking to generate a media narrative and bounce favoring Buttigieg.
With 95 percent of precincts in, Sanders' raw vote lead increased, and Buttigieg's delegate lead narrowed. News organizations widely reported that Buttigieg won more state delegate equivalents, while Sanders carried the "popular vote."
In reality, only the Sanders lead in raw supporters could be confirmed. There weren't enough caucus-goers in the outstanding precincts for Buttigieg to come out ahead on that metric.
In contrast, no one could say with any certainty that the former South Bend mayor was ahead in the delegate count. For one thing, differing interpretations on how the party would allocate delegates to the "satellite caucuses" (an innovation this cycle) could have added several state delegate equivalents to Sanders.
More important, by February 5, independent analysts had begun to publicize errors in how many delegates were assigned to the candidates in certain precincts. Some of those claims were grounded in misunderstandings about the mathematical formulas used to convert supporter numbers into county convention delegates. But many of them pointed to real problems. Iowa activist Jordan Hobfoll created a spreadsheet featuring more than 30 precincts with errors. Others contributing to that endeavor included Daniel Nichanian (editor of The Appeal: Political Report) and a fact-checker there, Ethan Corey.
Without a systematic review of all precincts, it's impossible to say whether these mistakes collectively altered the statewide results. Correcting the errors on Hobfoll's spreadsheet would net Sanders enough to overcome Buttigieg's lead in state delegate equivalents (564.302 to 561.528, at this writing).
But that's not a comprehensive list. A New York Times review found that
at least 10 percent of precincts appeared to have improperly allocated their delegates, based on reported vote totals. In some cases, precincts awarded more delegates than they had to give; in others, they awarded fewer. More than two dozen precincts appeared to give delegates to candidates who did not qualify as viable under the caucus rules.
Similarly, Nichanian and Corey identified at least 161 precincts with "some kind of uncorrectable error," due to precinct chairs not following all of the rules related to viability and realignment.
If those reviews are any indication, scores of precincts didn't assign the right number of county delegates to each candidate. Every county delegate represents a fraction of a state delegate equivalent. Those can add up quickly.
Not every problem can be fixed. But the IDP could have adjusted some of the delegate totals where precinct chairs did the math wrong, and Price should have emphatically promised to do so once those precincts were brought to his attention.
Here's where things went from incompetence to something worse.
STRIKE THREE: "THE INCORRECT MATH...MUST NOT BE CHANGED"
I gave state party leaders the benefit of the doubt last week, because I was confident the precinct numbers would eventually be reported accurately. After all, the new rules adopted for the 2020 caucuses improved documentation of where Iowans stood. For the first time, each caucus-goer was supposed to sign a "presidential preference card," stating the first choice candidate and in some cases a second choice, if that person's favorite was not viable in the precinct.
Speaking to reporters on the day the party rolled out the new rules in February 2019, Price characterized the cards as "not a ballot," but a way "to recount and record what happens in the room.” If the caucus campaign ended in a very close race, as happened in 2016, the IDP would be able to ensure the state’s national delegates “accurately reflect what happens on caucus night,” he added. Recounts were impossible following the 2016 caucuses, because on the Democratic side, there were no paper records of individual voter preferences. (Iowa Republicans have always collected something like a ballot from each person attending their precinct caucuses.)
On the morning after the caucuses, a party news release quoted Price as saying, "While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld.” Sounds reasonable.
Later in the week, the party signaled that it would not be second-guessing precinct chairs unless a presidential campaign requested a recount or recanvass. A February 6 written statement from Price acknowledged that the reporting problems on caucus night "were unacceptable." What he went on to say raised red flags (emphasis added):
“Should any presidential campaign in compliance with the Iowa Delegate Selection Plan request a recanvass, the IDP is prepared. In such a circumstance, the IDP will audit the paper records of report, as provided by the precinct chairs and signed by representatives of presidential campaigns. This is the official record of the Iowa Democratic caucus, and we are committed to ensuring the results accurately reflect the preference of Iowans.”
What about those dozens of precincts where the official record submitted by the precinct chair did not accurately reflect the preference of caucus-goers in the room, because one candidate received too many or not enough delegates?
IDP leaders decided to stick with the flawed official record.
On February 7, the party sent the presidential campaigns further information about how it would approach inaccuracies at the precinct level. IDP executive director Kevin Geiken shared that guidance with State Central Committee members. It read in part (emphasis added),
The Iowa Democratic Party continues to be fully committed to ensuring the accuracy of the caucus data that we report, and we want to make sure that the data reported matches the precinct records of result.
As such, the IDP will accept documentary evidence from the presidential campaigns of inconsistencies between the data reported and the records of results for correction. The inconsistencies must show a discrepancy between the Caucus Math Worksheet and the publicly reported results. If there is a difference between the caucus math worksheet and the publicly reported number, the IDP will correct the public report.
In other words, numbers on the worksheet prepared by the precinct chair and signed by campaign volunteers would stand, even if independent analysis showed delegates were wrongly assigned.
Why adopt a detailed Delegate Selection Plan, spelling out the mathematical formulas, if precinct chairs can do their own thing, either by honest mistake or intentionally?
Why make a big deal out of introducing a "paper trail" if the party wasn't going to use the preference cards to verify results?
A February 8 news release announced that the party was "reviewing reports of 95 precincts"--about 5 percent of the total. "The top priority of the IDP continues to be ensuring the accuracy of reported data as the process moves towards completion."
Price and McClure didn't respond to my inquiries that day about who would conduct the review and whether they would adjust delegate totals to compensate for mistakes made on caucus night.
I got the disturbing answer from Trip Gabriel. He was first to report on Twitter, and later in the New York Times, on a follow-up email Price sent to State Central Committee members on February 8. He quoted the party's lawyer, Des Moines attorney Shayla McCormally, as saying (emphasis added),
The incorrect math on the Caucus Math Worksheets must not be changed to ensure the integrity of the process. Most importantly the Worksheet is the caucus chair and secretary's "certification" of the results as required by Iowa Code 43.4(2-3). It is the legal voting record of the caucus, like a ballot. The seriousness of the record is made clear by the language at the bottom stating that any misrepresentation of the information is a crime. Therefore, any changes or tampering with the sheet could result in a claim of election interference or misconduct.
Similarly, the form is signed by all leadership of the caucus. The caucus chair and secretary sign the form and invite representatives of each campaign to also sign agreeing to the numbers. The IDP's role is to facilitate the caucus and tabulate the results. Any judgement [sic] of math miscalculations would insert personal opinion into the process by individuals not at the caucus and could change the agreed upon results. That action would be interfering with the caucus' expression of their preferences. There are various reasons that the worksheets have errors and may appear to not be accurate, however changing the math would change the information agreed upon And certified by the caucus goers.
If campaigns want further recourse they will need to work all of the way through the process to a Recount where the Presidential Preference Cards are opened and counted.
How can correcting math errors, following the steps outlined in the Delegate Selection Plan, be deemed "personal opinion"?
That's not the only problem with McCormally's interpretation.
FAILURE TO CORRECT "OBVIOUS MISTAKES"
Election law is not McCormally's primary area of practice. Her tactical errors in handling a disputed Iowa House election in 2018 prevented disenfranchised voters from having their day in court.
Multiple lawyers I contacted over the weekend questioned McCormally's reading of Iowa Code 43.4, the statute dealing with political party precinct caucuses. Subsection 2 calls for caucuses to elect a precinct chair and secretary "who shall within seven days certify to the county central committee the names of those elected as party committee members and delegates to the county convention."
Subsection 3 calls for a designated person under a political party's rules "to report the results of the precinct caucus as directed by the state central committee of that political party." It does not require a party to leave those reported results unchanged if they are in error. Even if you read the section to mean that only one designated person can report results, the wording suggests the state central committee could direct that person to file a revised worksheet with corrected voter numbers or delegate allocations.
Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey, a formal legal counsel to Governor Tom Vilsack, told Bleeding Heartland via email on February 9,
I have not seen the letter from IDP, I have only seen the reporting from Trip Gabriel. The belief that IDP legally cannot correct mistakes is not a plausible interpretation of the law. Nothing in chapter 43 prevents the party from correcting mistakes in the tabulation and reporting of the presidential nominating process. More importantly, the First Amendment right to association gives political parties wide latitude to decide their presidential party nominating process. No court is going to interfere with a party correcting obvious mistakes in data reporting. In anything, the party exposes itself to a potential due process and equal protection challenge if its refuses to correct the errors.
Setting the legal analysis aside, it is political malpractice not to correct obvious mistakes in the results. The purpose of the nominating process exists to make sure the party’s nominee is the product of the will of the people. Ignoring obvious mistakes runs contrary to that purpose.
Unfortunately, the party is determined at this writing to ignore obvious mistakes. A February 9 news release announced "updated results for 55 precincts." In keeping with its lack of transparency, the party did not provide a list or spreadsheet of those 55 precincts. The massive, user-unfriendly table on the official results page doesn't show which numbers were altered. The statement explained (emphasis added),
Prior to reporting the totals, the IDP shared with each campaign the analysis of the submissions and any resulting corrections. Corrections were made when the reported precinct numbers were inconsistent with the precinct’s official results, as signed by the precinct chair, secretary, and representatives of presidential campaigns.
Sure enough, wrong delegate totals are still listed for most of the precincts flagged on Hobfoll's spreadsheet. We can't tell whether the errors robbed Sanders of a victory on state delegate equivalents, but we can definitively say, in Nichanian's words, that the official results "are unreliable and largely unverified."
The knives were out for Iowa well before caucus-goers gathered last week. This "epic fiasco," as a New York Times headline put it, likely dooms any chance of our state going first in future election cycles. Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez is "mad as hell" and blaming Price. He told CNN's Jake Tapper on February 9 that Democrats will "have a further conversation about whether or not state parties should be running elections." That's code for killing caucuses, since county and state officials administer primary elections.
In a sense, Iowans were unlucky to have a third photo-finish caucus in a row. Close races shine a light on every flaw in an election system. Even vote-counting procedures managed by professionals often can't withstand the scrutiny that accompanies a recount-close race.
But that's no excuse for not making the Iowa caucuses as accurate as they can be.
The buck has to stop somewhere. Price should resign, and his successor should hire outside counsel with more expertise in election law.