WEST DES MOINES, Iowa ― The takeaway of the Iowa caucuses Monday night was not who won the first political contest in the U.S. It was instead a story of confusion and chaos as the Iowa Democratic Party failed to release the results at all for hours after the caucuses ended.
At 11:30 p.m. local time, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was the first candidate to come out and address her supporters, admitting that she, too, was in the dark about what was taking so long. The other candidates delivered speeches to their own supporters shortly thereafter, all acknowledging that they had no answers.
“Let me begin by saying, I imagine ― have a strong feeling, that at some point, the results will be announced. And when those results will be announced, I have a good feeling that we’ll be doing very, very well here in Iowa,” said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The Iowa Democratic Party insisted that, in short, the system they put in place to report the results didn’t work out. It was too slow, overloaded and led to delays. The party tried to reassure people that there was no hacking of the system, pointing instead to “inconsistencies” in three sets of caucus results.
“This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion,” said Mandy McClure, communications director for the party.
But that wasn’t enough for the campaigns. The Joe Biden campaign sent a letter to party officials, demanding “full explanations and relevant information regarding the methods of quality control you are employing.”
The confusion took much of the wind out of not only what was supposed to be a shining moment for Iowa, but also for whoever emerged as the winner of the caucuses. Instead of leaving Iowa with momentum, some of the candidates would be getting on a plane for New Hampshire with uncertainty.
The Iowa Democratic Party (IDC) tried something new this year. In the past, it released only the number of state delegates each candidate received. But this year, in an effort to be more transparent, it was also releasing the number of votes candidates received in the first and second rounds of the caucuses.
But that also made the reporting process more difficult. The party decided to use an app, allowing precinct chairs to report and transmit caucus results more quickly, at least in theory. But officials were secretive about the technology, refusing to reveal which company designed the app or what security measures were put in place to safeguard the results.
But that app didn’t seem to work for everyone, and the backup system failed miserably. Shawn Sebastian, a precinct chair in Ames, Iowa, tried to call a hotline number they were given to report results.
After being on hold for more than an hour, the operator hung up on him while he was live on CNN.
There seemed to be significant confusion from precinct chairs on how to tally results and what to report. And a call between the campaigns and the Iowa Democratic Party ended abruptly, according to CNN, with party officials unable to give a time for when results would be ready.
In a brief call with reporters at 1 a.m. local time, Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said he expects IDP will “have numbers to report later” in the day.
“We want to emphasize that this is a reporting issue, not a hack or an intrusion. And it’s exactly why we have a paper trail and systems in place to uphold the integrity of our process,” he said. “We are validating every piece of data we have against our paper trail.“
He ended the call without taking questions.
The absence of verified data left a void that the campaigns rushed to fill. The campaign of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg declared victory, claiming that its data on the results in 77 per cent of the precincts showed it exceeding pre-caucus projections of a tie by 8 percentage points.
The Sanders campaign followed suit by releasing internal reporting figures allegedly from almost 40 per cent of precincts showing Sanders in the lead.
Stillwell Junior High in the suburb of West Des Moines hosted two Democratic caucus precincts on Monday night.
But about an hour after the end of a mostly tidy caucus that Sanders narrowly won in the cafeteria area, a much larger caucus in the gymnasium had yet to come to a close.
“It’s very difficult for me to be here ... The caucus system just doesn’t work.”
As the clock approached 10 p.m. local time, some of the most active participants in the latter caucus were still reeling from a dispute over the number of caucus participants, which resulted in U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) failing to cross the viability threshold of at least 15 per cent.
A manual count of all the participants had found that 367 people showed up to participate, but a count of the presidential preference cards each participant was obligated to complete this year showed 378 participants. With just 367 attendees, Warren supporters made up more than 15 per cent of participants needed to achieve viability.
The IDP’s failure to announce the caucus results capped what had already been a frustrating Monday night for some caucus-goers, who have to physically stand in different parts of a room in order to indicate their support for a candidate.
Janet Bequeaith, 82, had intended to caucus for Klobuchar, but because less than 15 per cent of the 130 people at her Des Moines precinct supported Klobuchar, Bequeaith had to pick someone else. With the assistance of a rolling walker, she made her way across the King Elementary School gym floor to the Biden group, which cheered her arrival.
But then the caucus chair announced there had been a problem, and everyone had to go back to their corners. It wasn’t until more than two hours after the event started that the precinct’s results were finally tallied, with Sanders getting the most support and Biden coming in second.
Bequeaith said she wished the Iowa Democratic Party would let people vote for their favourite candidate instead of making them caucus.
“It’s very difficult for me to be here. I have difficulty walking,” she said. “The caucus system just doesn’t work.”
The people leading the caucus manually recounted the bodies in the gymnasium three times and verified the 367 figure, according to Warren campaign precinct chair Julie Hale.
But Hale said that the Iowa Democratic Party overruled the caucus chairman, her husband, requiring them to accept the 378 figure.
The whole incident was enough to undermine Hale’s already low confidence in the entire caucus system.
“A primary is the only way to go,” she said.
In an interview with HuffPost on Monday night, J.D. Scholten, a Democrat who is unaligned in the U.S. presidential primary and running to unseat Republican Rep. Steve King in northwest Iowa, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about how to respond until there’s more information about what went wrong.
He nonetheless predicted that the messy outcome would ramp up calls to end the caucus, which had also been criticized over its first-in-the-nation advantage in a state that lacks racial diversity.
“We’re already at an uphill battle this cycle,” Scholten said. “There are a lot of folks tired of Iowa being the first. I see it everywhere.”
“I hope this doesn’t reflect on the diligence of Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers,” he added. “But it’s definitely a stain on the caucus.”
With files from Arthur Delaney