Iowa Caucus Snafu Highlights the Hypocrisy of American Exceptionalism

Jonah Wexler, Associate Copy Editor

On the night of Monday, Feb. 3, I nervously sat down to watch the results of the Iowa Caucus, the first indication of who will face Donald Trump this November. I should have spared myself the trouble because any semblance of complete results would not be available for more than three days. The Iowa caucus system has long been derided as antiquated, complicated and undemocratic. It demonstrated all three of those traits on Monday when the entire system fell apart.

The Iowa caucus follows a tortured process to produce a winner. In any given precinct, voters display support for a candidate by physically forming groups, in a corner of a high school gym, for example. These votes are counted and published as the first-round vote. If support for any candidate falls below 15 percent of voters, the voters must redistribute themselves to other candidates. These totals are published as the final vote. However, this is not what determines the winner. From here, calculations are done to assign candidates state delegate equivalents. Then, more math is done to determine the number of delegates by which each candidate will be represented at the Democratic National Convention in July.

Iowa, Wyoming and Nevada are the only states to select delegates using this process — a miniature electoral college that ignores the popular vote. Every other state votes in a more traditional fashion and assigns delegates proportionally.

What caused the vote-tallying process in Iowa to spiral out of control, however, went beyond the complicated math of the matter. The Iowa Democratic Party used an untested mobile app to facilitate the process. Early Monday night, the app crashed. Attempts to reach the developers and owners of the app were fruitless. Frustrated party officials released results for their jurisdictions on social media and some even sent results via snail mail. Ultimately, the country went to bed on Monday night with zero votes counted.

One candidate, Pete Buttigieg, declared victory despite the paucity of results. Very early Tuesday morning, two candidates, Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, released their own internal vote tallies. Both said that their own campaigns were victorious.

On Thursday, three days after the caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party formally released its results. They showed Buttigieg leading the delegate count, although Sanders won both measures of the popular vote. Almost immediately, observers noticed massive errors in the delegate apportionments. The party withdrew the results and announced a recount. The results released last Sunday are still mired with errors. By the time you read this, almost three weeks after the caucus, it is doubtful that we will know what really happened in Iowa.

The media and politicians have defended what happened in Iowa as an isolated incident that isn’t indicative of the way our elections work. The media has coronated Buttigieg as the winner. This is false. We do not know who won, and this was not a legitimate process. But since it happened here, in the U.S., it was waved off.

In fact, had an electoral snafu like this occurred anywhere else in the world, it is certain that the United States would have decried it as illegitimate.

In 2011, Haiti held a hotly contested presidential election that was under the tight supervision of the U.S. State Department, at the time led by Hillary Clinton. After a slow counting process, the top two candidates to advance to a second round were a conservative, Mirlande Manigat, and a leftist, Jude Célestin. However, the U.S. as well as the third-place candidate, conservative Michel Martelly, cast doubts on Célestin’s results, implying that there was vote interference and corruption. Under this pressure, Célestin dropped out, ensuring the second round would be between two conservatives, Manigat and Martelly, both American allies.

In October, Bolivia held a presidential election. Shortly into the counting process, the results website crashed. A day later, the site was restored. During the blackout, votes had been counted from indigenous-majority rural swaths of the country, giving Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the leftist Evo Morales, a victory. The Bolivian election agency published very transparent results that documented every vote cast. However, the Bolivian right-wing and American politicians of both parties cast doubts in the results and pushed Morales to resign. This culminated in far-right theocrats seizing power, forcing the legitimately elected Morales to flee to Mexico in fear of his life.

The counting delay that happened in Bolivia was far more normal than the disaster that we saw in Iowa last week. The delay was due to vote counters having to physically move personnel through the Andes mountains because internet coverage is still spotty in much of Bolivia. That was a problem Morales had been working to solve. Compare that to Iowa, a state in the wealthiest nation on the globe, where the party still irrevocably messed up the counting process. Haiti held its election in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, so vote-counting was slow because the nation’s infrastructure was just recovering. The Iowa Caucus, meanwhile, occurred on an unseasonably warm February day.

The American government and foreign policy apparatus are massively hypocritical. Our elections and internal affairs, despite having blatant gaping flaws, are beyond criticism. Meanwhile, much of the world must worry about U.S. interference in their elections if the results aren’t to the U.S.’ liking. The chaos in Iowa last week was normal. The disgusting purging of nearly 100,000 black voters from voter rolls in Georgia weeks before the 2018 midterms is indicative of something that happens all the time here. Our electoral college is undemocratic and antiquated, yet widely accepted. These are all far worse and more undemocratic phenomena than the electoral processes the U.S. regularly invalidates across the globe. If we really wish to uphold our value of internationalism, we at Macalester need to call out our government and media for hypocrisy. It is flagrantly wrong that we have accepted our flawed elections as the best of the best while the better-run elections of other countries are immediately doubted and disregarded.