A man in a puffy jacket had pushed his way to the front of the table where I was jostling around with a small gaggle of Democratic Party volunteers, all straining to catch a glimpse of the first round of votes cast in the crowded City Hall of Ames, Iowa.
“I have to go,” he said, handing the precinct official his voting card. I asked him why he was leaving so early, and he looked at me sharply.
By the time this precinct closed, at 10 p.m., ten voters had left, citing the long wait, children at home, and tricky transportation logistics.
“I have a kid with diabetes at home.”
The two party officials I’d been bugging for results traded a glance. It was 7:45 p.m., and five people had already left the crowded precinct without seeing their votes counted; they’d sat, stood, been counted, and sat back down, but it was unclear to many exactly how long the process would go on. By the time this precinct closed, at 10 p.m., ten voters had left, citing the long wait, children at home, and tricky transportation logistics.
This year, the Democratic Party, which usually tallies the votes by late on Monday, said the votes may not be reported until Tuesday afternoon. Party officials chalk up the slow transmission of voter data to “inconsistencies” in reporting under the party’s new caucusing rules for tallying votes from two rounds of voting. In addition to the tweaked guidelines around reporting, caucuses also provided paper ballots and held remote “satellite” caucuses for Iowa residents as far away as Tbilisi, Georgia.
In a complicating twist, caucus officials were instructed to report their data through an app, which some of the volunteers staffing the precincts said was not functional. (The Democratic Party maintained last night that it wasn’t the app that had slowed the process, but reporting errors).
Meanwhile, precinct officials who said they had run into problems with the app encountered long delays when they tried to call the Democratic Party to directly report their votes. One caucus secretary, Shawn Sebastian, reported being kept on hold for more than two hours while attempting to report the results from his precinct.
Early polling appears to show Joe Biden headed for a remarkable loss, trailing Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, all competing for the top three positions in the race. The Biden campaign has charged, in a statement from the campaign’s general counsel, that the caucuses were riddled with “acute failures.”
But the former Vice President, who polled so low in several major precincts that he did not reach the 15 percent necessary for viability, isn’t the primary casualty of the caucuses. The primary casualty is the caucus system itself—and the would-be caucus participants whose preferences it will not reflect.
The caucuses have been widely reported as inaccessible; precincts often fail to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and are typically administered in English only. Childcare is prohibitively expensive for many, and bringing kids to the caucuses is tricky. At the caucus I observed, in an auditorium in Ames City Hall, food was not permitted in the precinct where voters waited for more than three hours to be counted.
Concerns over institutional barriers to caucusing were met this year with a lively push by party and campaign activists for a more democratic process. The first multilingual caucus was held in Cedar Rapids, while volunteers and precinct leaders doubled down on efforts to increase voter turnout by improving caucus accessibility.
Aaron Lynch, precinct captain for the Bernie Sanders campaign at the Ames City Hall precinct, told me his campaign had trained volunteers to make adjustments where necessary to try to ensure physically accessible polling arenas.
“I just tried to make sure that in each camp—camps that are gonna be pretty big, garner 15 percent or more—that there were at least some ADA seats in those camps,” said Lynch.
Sarah Carney, a web developer who designs interfaces for the visually impaired, volunteered at her precinct to create a more inclusive venue. But Carney, who caucused for Warren, said inaccessibility is a function of caucusing, an endemic feature of the way voting is done during the Iowa Democratic primaries.
“I would say that there’s a lot of effort made, but that [caucusing] is a fundamentally undemocratic process,” Carney told me. “If anyone can’t be here for any reason, then we’re not hearing all of the voices that we want to . . . I just don’t know if it would even be possible to do this inclusively.”
Caucusing has evolved critically since Iowa’s early presidential primaries, when party bosses designed a system whereby party officials got together to choose delegates, who would then vote on candidates. Now caucusing takes place in packed gymnasiums and sweaty auditoriums. The caucuses, where voting is a public affair conducted by a show of hands and voters are encouraged to debate before pledging their allegiance to a candidate, involve more sitting in chairs and waiting for instruction than vigorous debate and participation.
Contemporary caucusing is the bloated, messy heir apparent of a voting tradition never intended to “reflect the population,” but to constrain the vote to the political elite.
Stripped of some of its more provincial qualities (small and rural and taking place in churches and living rooms), contemporary caucusing is the bloated, messy heir apparent of a voting tradition never intended to “reflect the population,” but to constrain the vote to the political elite.
In 1850, caucusing was limited to white male citizens; in 2020, the privilege of the vote is withheld from noncitizens and anyone with a felony. The caucuses are timed such that anyone unable to quietly exit their lives for three hours on a Monday evening due to kids, work, etc., are also barred from representation.
In a state where the perceived electoral importance garners breathless months of media coverage and millions of dollars of campaign spending, there is something nasty and poetic about the Democrats’ inability to report the results of their own election: Campaign hype, and the spectacle of the process, always overblown, are empty placeholders without the vote itself.
Alice Herman is interim associate editor at The Progressive.