It was supposed to be the critical night for Democratic presidential hopefuls. It left Iowa in critical condition, instead.
Now, in the wake of a presidential caucus in chaos, the nation is right to question the security and validity of forthcoming primary elections. It’s also right to question the process itself.
The system is fraught with concerns. The early voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — have been scrutinized this campaign season, as in years past, for playing an outsize role in the path to the presidency. Candidates vie for a total of 41 delegates in Iowa — a mere 1% of the total delegate pool — and New Hampshire awards even fewer. Yet, for decades the winner of these two states has been bestowed profound momentum.
Others emphasize the poor national representation among the first few states. For a party that prizes diversity and draws much of its activity from younger voters, the Democratic Iowa caucusgoers tend to be more rural and homogeneous.
All of which made Monday’s “quality control” issues even less palatable. Changes to the way the Democratic Party counted votes combined with the ill-fated introduction of a reporting smartphone app to cause headaches for all involved. Numbers coming in to party officials weren’t consistent, and much of the evening was spent checking and double-checking votes. As of Tuesday evening, only 62% of results had been released.
Candidates, too, were left frustrated and off balance. Each of the front-runners took turns declaring some sort of unofficial victory, adding more confusion to the situation as they now turn to New Hampshire.
A representative democracy exists on the foundations of credible institutions. Right now, that confidence may be waning. According to an NPR/PBS January poll, 41% of Americans believe the U.S. is “not very prepared or not prepared at all to keep November’s election safe and secure.”
Two changes would help flip that perception.
First, the nation must take greater strides to secure elections from outside threats. In theory, digital technology should make elections faster, easier and more secure. In practice, it’s been a mixed bag. Clear evidence exists that foreign governments attempted to manipulate the 2016 election. Those attacks continued in droves during the 2018 midterms.
Utah experimented with internet voting during its 2016 Republican caucus. The result was disastrous. Reports give assurance that Iowa’s technological issues neither affected the outcome nor were the work of a hacker, but they still undermined voter confidence.
States and parties shouldn’t rush to adopt an untested technology when a more secure, analog process can do. As one New York Times columnist wisely argued on Tuesday, the “debacle proved that a 21st-century election requires 19th-century technology.”
Second, the country should dispense with the fixed-state primary schedule. Valid arguments exist for avoiding a national primary, but why not allow states to rotate through the voting order?
Iowa has been first since the 1970s for little reason other than its nominating process is complicated and it required more time to get through it. But, as a political columnist from the Des Moines Register once noted, “The really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it’s first because it’s important. Iowa is important because it’s first.” Forcing candidates to move around the country every four years would infuse an otherwise predictable process with vitality and validation.
Above all, Americans must have confidence that their voice is fairly heard in secure elections. The more they lose faith in the process, the less they will engage — an outcome that would undermine democracy itself.