The NCSL Blog


By Ben Williams

After a year of glad-handing, bus tours and town halls across Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidates still do not know who the state's caucus winner is.

Precinct secretary Ari Fleisig at a caucus precinct site in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday. The Iowa Democratic Party said that the data collected "was sound" despite the smartphone app malfunction. Michael Zamora/NPRAs of midday Tuesday, reports indicate the delay is being blamed on a coding error in the mobile application the Iowa Democratic Party set up for reporting caucus results to party headquarters, and at least a partial failure of the phone back-up reporting mechanism.

While there is a paper trail, and accurate results are expected, this is an opportune time to reflect on what happened.

Charles Stewart, political science professor at MIT and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, is a longtime and frequent faculty member at NCSL events. He posted his thoughts on what occurred in Iowa this morning, and they are worth sharing (reprinted with permission).

ItCharles Stewart, Iowa caucus blog’s Tuesday morning and we still don’t know the outcome of the Iowa caucus. Acknowledging that all the facts haven’t come in yet, here are some of my initial thoughts:

Who runs “elections?” A caucus isn’t an election, of course, it’s an event run entirely by a party. Despite concerns about election administration in the U.S., one thing the fiasco illustrates is what happens when true amateurs run elections (or “elections.”)

The role of technology. Computer technology can help facilitate the tedious calculations that go into figuring who won. But, technology needs to be rigorously tested before being put into use. Don’t use the election/caucus as an opportunity to beta test, much less alpha test.

Learning from technology snafus. I worry that the wrong lessons will be learned from the failure of the vote-reporting app. Initial reports suggest the problems are due to failure of the app to perform under load, usability, and lack of capacity in phone back-up, not security. Security is vitally important, but it is not the only thing.

The inadequacy of back-up plans as the main system. Often, we point to back-up systems, such as paper ballots and paper poll books, as fail-safes in case election computers fail. This is fine if there are one-off problems. They’re not fine when they become the primary system.

The freak-out over not knowing. So much to say here. Democrats and much of the media want an anointed nominee/savior right now to take on Trump. What should be bumps in the road are becoming existential crises. Take a deep breath, people.

The value of starting in a small state. I’ve never been worried about the first nominating events being in small states. Candidates and the parties need to ramp up somewhat gradually. Better a screw-up in Iowa (or New Hampshire) than in a big state.

RCV is not our savior. Some people I admire argue this is an example of why we need rank-choice voting. I like RCV. But, it’s also complicated and prone to complaints when first-round leaders lose out in vote distribution. This event has little to add to the RCV debate.

Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.