The Iowa Caucus controversy: a collapsing tradition?

MacKenzie Stewart, News & Opinion & Online Editor


The 2020 presidential race went into full swing with the first round of caucuses and primary voting beginning with the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 3. Iowa has traditionally been the first state to begin voting, and this state’s caucus method has raised issues in the past, but for this 2020 election, there was even more controversy surrounding the methods used to tally the votes and their results.

“[Iowa] actually [has] four different conventions before they actually choose delegates to go to the national convention, so because they want it to be so grassroots and so personalized, they have to start so early…and since it has gotten so much national attention, everybody keeps just going there first,” Thomas Kuhn, AP Government teacher, said.

There are two main styles of elections to decide the Republican and Democratic nominees for president: a caucus and a primary. A primary is the quick, five-minute voting system in states like Illinois where voters will go to a polling place and cast their ballot. A caucus, however, is very different and features speeches from candidate representatives and a more public method of voting.

“[Iowa uses] a caucus system, which is basically like a public meeting system…when you go into your local caucus and you literally, physically, join your group…. Everybody can see what you’re doing,” Stacey Darcy, AP Government teacher, said.

As Darcy explained, voters go to a section of a large room, like a school cafeteria, to cast their vote by standing in a group of, for example, Bernie Sanders supporters.

There are two major sides to the controversy around the caucuses.

One side supports the caucus method, which draws in engaged citizens, allows people to hear more about the candidates and allows voters to be more informed on the candidates’ policies.

“I was intrigued by their way of deciding a winner from their state, and I watched many Obama-era movies about Iowa caucuses, and it was pretty cool to see how grassroots everything is, [and] I wanted to see [and] check it out,” Ilya Vynnyk, junior, said about his experiences when he went to observe the proceedings at various caucus sites in Iowa.

The threshold system Iowa has in place is also significant. Under this requirement, a candidate has to receive 15 percent of the votes, or they are not allocated any delegates– the people who actually cast the votes at the precinct, county and state level in Iowa. Delegates for the state convention where the final candidate of the parties are chosen are allocated according to the number of votes at a caucus, and delegates are also used in a primary voting system. If a candidate does not receive 15 percent of the votes, then the people standing in that group are able to join another group in a process called realignment.

“If you’re candidate doesn’t meet that [15 percent] threshold, then the other groups are going to kind of work you over to try and come over to their group because you still have to cast your vote with somebody, and so ultimately, that’s how delegates are allocated,” Darcy said.

One aspect Vynnyk noticed when he was in Iowa, both for the caucus and for his campaign work for Democratic candidate Amy Klobuchar, was that this system, although possibly only specific to that state, encourages voters to be friendly.

Darcy supported this positivity when she said, “What [people who went to observe the caucus told me] were saying was how energizing it was to see people who were excited and willing to talk about their candidates and…what they really liked was the total lack of negativity of it.”

There are, however, downsides to this voting method.

One major issue is that this process takes a couple hours to listen to the speeches, vote and, if needed, go through realignment, and some voters aren’t able to spend hours of their day at a polling place.

“In a caucus system, it’s requiring me to show up at an assigned time, so there’s really no accommodation for my work schedule [or] my family schedule, [and] it’s a much more time-consuming process,” Darcy said. “If we want to include people of all backgrounds, we’re not doing much with that caucus system, [with no early voting, unlike Nevada], to accommodate that.”

Iowa traditionally being the state to go first is another potential issue. The Iowa caucus can have an influence on other races because it is the first show of which Democratic candidates are the most popular with the people. But, Iowa’s population is not representative of all American voters, as Iowa has a greater population of white people than is proportional to America.

The largest issue this year with the Iowa caucus was the errors with the app used to send in the votes. An app was used this year to send the results instead of the past method of calling in the votes, and the app ended up crashing. This crash led to concerns about accurate vote count. Partially because of this controversy, there was confusion over who the winner was: Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders. The Associated Press was not able to declare a winner on Feb. 6.

“The app just couldn’t handle the stress test. The Chairman of the [Democratic National Committee] actually said that he repeatedly asked the Iowa Democrats…‘Is this app stress-tested, is this app ready to go;’ they said yes, [and] obviously [it] didn’t work,” Vynnyk said.

With Iowa traditionally providing a boost for the winner of the race, in terms of publicity and a first glimpse at the voters, the errors caused by the app dampened that enthusiasm.

“I guess it favors the candidates that didn’t do so well because there wasn’t that immediate reaction to the results, which usually gets momentum going and more donations and more followers going into the next state,” Kuhn said, “so it sort of slowed down the momentum that the winner would’ve gotten.”

The crash was further used by Republicans to call out the Democrats for their error.

“And it obviously is good fuel for President Trump to just [have] more reasons to make fun of Democrats– that they can’t even count their votes right or run their election properly,” Kuhn said.

Vynnyk agreed with the negative impact the crashing app had on the Democrats as he added, “The argument can be made that if they can’t even control the Iowa caucuses, how can they control the Presidency?”

Since the Iowa caucus, only Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden were left in the Democratic primary race with Biden leading in terms of delegate numbers.