If Democrats can’t produce caucus results from Iowa on a timely basis, how can they ever hope to run the federal government? And some of these are the people who want to run the whole health care system, as well?
Those are some of the questions Republicans have gleefully asked in the wake of the Democrats’ Iowa caucus disaster, and we can understand why.
Democrats foolishly ran a real-time test in new technology, introducing a new smartphone app through which to report results. It did not go well, in the same way that the Hindenburg did not go well. Has no one in the Iowa Democratic Party ever used a computer? Those of us who do are all too aware of many of the ways they can go wrong. This unbridled faith in untested technology was bound to bring on trouble.
There’s another way to look, though, at what happened. Yes, the delayed results are certainly an embarrassment for a party that wants to run the government, and Republicans are right to capitalize on that point. But the Iowa fiasco also makes a point that Republicans usually don’t — that sometimes the government really can do things better. This was a party-run caucus, not a real election. It was the privatization of the electoral process that brought on this catastrophe for the Democrats.
There are lots of reasons to prefer primaries over caucuses: They involve more people, for one thing. Caucuses in both parties amplify the voices of hardcore party activists who tend to be further to the extremes than most voters. Caucuses also require participants to cast their votes publicly, which goes against the rest of the American electoral experience. Let’s set all that aside, though, and just look at the more immediate question of how results get reported. Iowa Democrats wanted organizers in each of the state’s 1,681 precincts to download an app to their personal phones and use that to report their results. When that app failed, there were simply no results available, except for anecdotal and unofficial accounts from individual precincts that people posted on social media.
Now let’s contrast that with how election results get reported. We don’t know Iowa but we know Virginia. Here — in an actual election — each precinct reports its results to the electoral board for that county or city, which then submits them to the State Board of Elections. In most years, the state board’s website does a superb job of posting the results as they come in. That may not sound much different from what Iowa Democrats tried to do. It’s actually quite different, because there’s a lot more transparency along the way. In most localities in Virginia, people gather at the local election office to watch as the precinct returns come in — representatives from both parties and sometime just interested citizens. Some registrars pass out printouts of the results as they arrive. In Highland County, and perhaps others, the results are written on a chalkboard for all to see. Some localities post their results on their own websites.
In the last election cycle, there was such national interest in Virginia’s General Assembly elections that the surge of online traffic ground the State Board of Elections website to a halt, effectively delaying the reporting of the results just like in Iowa. The difference: In Iowa, there was no other source of official results. None. In Virginia, there were plenty of places people could look for official results while the state’s website was down. It might have been haphazard — some localities posted their results, some didn’t. Local news media were at some electoral boards and not at others. But there was still a lot more openness about the results than there was in Iowa. Iowa Democrats effectively had a monopoly on their own results. As a political party, they are entitled to set up their own procedures, no matter how unwise they are. In an actual election, the votes get reported to the public at many different steps of the process — because that’s what we expect out of our government. In Iowa, the Democrats own their caucus results; the public has no right to see any of the paperwork. With an election, the precinct results are public records.
Just in case anyone is still missing our point, it’s this: The government really can do a better job running elections than political parties can — the rules are standardized, and there’s a lot more openness built into the process. We in Roanoke have our own local example: The 2016 party-run “firehouse primary” in which Democrats picked candidates for mayor and city council. The big turnout clearly strained the party’s capacity to run an event of that size. Democrats then would have been better off holding an actual primary. They’d be well-advised to hold one this year.
Now so far we’ve extolled the virtues of government when it comes to running elections but that extollation comes with a big, fat asterisk. Here it is: That government is you. We don’t mean that in some theoretical “we the people” sense, although we mean that, too. Instead, we mean it in a very practical sense. Whenever you go to the polls, you will find at least three people working at your precinct. That’s because state law requires at least three poll workers per precinct. In practice, there needs to be more — because it’s a long day and people do need breaks. So where do these people come from? Hint: There is no government office that on Election Day disgorges an army of election bureaucrats. Let’s look at Roanoke County. It has more registered voters than any locality west of Albemarle County. Do you know how many people work full-time for the Roanoke County registrar’s office? Three. Plus three part-time. That’s all. But to run elections in Roanoke County there have to be a minimum of 99 officers of election because Roanoke County has 33 precincts. So we ask again: Where do these people come from?
They come from the general public — ordinary people who sign up to do their civic duty. That’s not where you thought this editorial was headed, but here we are. Virtually every locality in the state is in need of poll workers, especially this year when the presidential election is expected to generate a huge turnout. If you think the lines are too long, there’s a fix for that: More poll workers. For one day of the year, at least, a bigger government really can make things go more smoothly. Interested? Contact your local registrar. You’ll also get to see up close just how those results get reported in a more timely and open fashion than what just happened in Iowa.