Thursday, January 19, 2012

Iowa Parties Need A Hand

I spent another night on the phone last night, doing post-caucus detective work in the role I've played for five presidential caucus cycles now, co-chair of the county credentials committee. I was asking folks Which committee are you on, are you a delegate or alternate, what's your email. Little stuff, but still a fair chunk of work on my own time. No complaints; I signed up for the job.

So today I feel sympathy and solidarity with Matt Strawn and the crew over at the Iowa GOP, who had to swallow hard and announce that 1) there were eight out of 1774 precincts that are never going to be found and 2) the numbers from the 1766 they DO have now show Rick Santorum on top.

Iowa GOP Releases Certified Iowa Caucus Presidential Preference Vote Totals

Des Moines, IA – The Republican Party of Iowa today released the final, certified vote totals of the January 3 Iowa Caucus presidential preference vote. The final, certified vote totals represent 1,766 of the state’s 1,774 caucus precincts, and reflect a record-breaking 121,503 Iowans who participated.

2012 Iowa Republican Caucus Certified vote totals (1766/1774 precincts certified)

Rick Santorum 29,839

Mitt Romney 29,805

Ron Paul 26,036

Newt Gingrich 16,163

Rick Perry 12,557

Michele Bachmann 6,046

Jon Huntsman 739

No Preference 147

Other 86

Herman Cain 45

Sarah Palin 23

Buddy Roemer 17

Total (1766/1774) 121,503

Certified vote totals were unavailable for eight of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts. Full, certified vote totals per precinct are available online at

“Just as I did in the early morning hours on January 4, I congratulate Senator Santorum and Governor Romney on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history,” said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn. “Our goal throughout the certification process was to most accurately reflect and report how Iowans voted the evening of January 3. We understand the importance to the candidates involved, but as Iowans, we understand the responsibility we have as temporary caretakers of the Iowa caucuses.””

As Strawn noted during the January 4 announcement of unofficial caucus night vote totals, Iowa GOP rules provided for a 14-day period by which each of Iowa’s 99 counties were required to submit a Form E document from each of the caucus precincts within the county. The Form E document is the official record of the presidential preference vote in each of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts. The deadline for county Republican officials to submit the Form E documents was 5 p.m. (CST) on Wednesday, January 18. Following Wednesday’s deadline, Iowa GOP officials were able to certify results from 1,766 of the state’s 1,774 precincts.

Strawn noted that a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses is the openness and transparency within which the proceedings occur. Not only do voting Iowans and presidential campaign representatives have the opportunity to observe the vote counting in each of the state’s precincts, but each presidential campaign had senior campaign officials in the Iowa GOP’s official tabulation center on caucus night.

Strawn indicated this openness and transparency will continue during the post-certification period as the Iowa GOP will be making the precinct caucus Form E documents submitted during the certification process available for review to both presidential campaign officials and members of the media.

Here's hoping the national press is sidetracked by Rick "the Platypus" Perry dropping out and endorsing Newt "the Newt" Gingrich today.

Nate Silver, the best numbers guy in the biz, tweets: "The 8 caucus sites that Iowa says it lost and cannot certify, Santorum won 81-46 based on election night counts." You can't just add that in, but it does lend an additional feather of strength to the 34 Santorum... win?

I don't trust Republicans on everything, but I've worked with enough of them on caucus stuff to know they take it as seriously as I do, and I really believe that Strawn and Crew did the best job they could tracking this stuff down.

But my hope, my desperate hope, was that they'd come up with a number that was 1) 100% transparent and 2) had a Mitt number greater than the Santorum number, not for Romney's sake but for Iowa's.

Well, now Iowa's secret is out there: our beloved caucuses are a volunteer operation. And some mistakes happen. Not out of a venal back-room vote stealing kind, that wouldn't fly. Just plain human error. And I know as well as anyone that an all-volunteer operation can get spread too thin. For all the excesses of money in our political structure, at the most local level the ball game is still an amateur sport.

Looking at my own local team, our activists are clustered in a few precincts. But on caucus night you have to get someone from East Pole Bean to chair the East Pole Bean caucus. In real elections you could bring in someone from another precinct and have them vote absentee early. With no absentees in the caucus, if you bring in a caucus chair from another precinct, that person has to give up their vote. And I've seen county chairs do that, skipping their own caucus to drive to the far corner of the county and waiting for no one to show up, just to make it all happen.

And you might not have any good volunteers in East Pole Bean. Or you might have a volunteer who's good at the phone bank but over their head running a meeting. Counting the votes is a different skill set than getting out the votes. Or you could have a volunteer whose finger slips punching a result number into a cell phone. Or -- and this happened to us -- a precinct chair who has a family emergency and has to leave town at the last second.

And all this is at the worst possible time, when all the regular volunteers are off busy with campaigns, and in the last couple of cycles right over the holidays.

I can't say exactly that those specific things happened to the Iowa GOP in 2012, but that's the kind of things that happen.

The caucuses are too important to Iowa to let us become a punchline to all the old Florida jokes. The spotlight is too intense for all the volunteer excuses I just made.

We party activists need some help. And we have the people to do it: our Secretary of State, county auditors, and poll workers. (Full disclosure: I work for the county auditor, on the accounting side of the office, but at election time we all help.) I don't have an exact plan, and I still want to see the parties running their own show. We don't want to be "too much like an election" and incur the wrath of our uneasy ally New Hampshire. But there's an existing infrastructure of people who are used to doing the paperwork and reporting kind of stuff, even if it just means recruiting some of the same experienced people on their own time.

It's also a good time, even as the excitement of the caucuses fades away, to get involved in the party of your choice, in building that precinct by precinct organization. A lot of those committee spots went unfilled on caucus night, and us old timers on both sides would love to have you.

It’s something to consider as we face the latest criticism. The expectations bar for the caucuses has been raised far above their town meeting origins, and planning ahead for additional resources, public and partisan, is the only way we have a hope for keeping first place.


nanoscale00 said...

Fluctuations of about 50 votes either way for a turnout of 120K is a variation of 0.04% There's a reason that "count" experiments involve repeated trials. This is a statistical tie and variations in reporting after the fact should not be considered troublesome or alarming.

The eight "missing" precincts, OTOH, doesn't look good just because it sucks to have to say "we don't have results for 8 precincts." I hope that nobody's paying too much attention at this point. It really is moot, because if you add those, under any other circumstances (like a primary) you'd have more recounts, and the numbers would probably change again. People felt it was a tie on 3-Jan, so not much has changed, except for what the wiki pages etc will say for posterity.

JD said...

Do you recall the system IDP used in 2008? Touch tone reporting that was repeated back over the phone as soon as the data was entered, then promptly posted to a web site that the whole caucus could view if they had a computer set up at their caucus.

No recounts that way. Perfectly transparent system with no delays. Why didn't the Rs do it like the Ds did it in 2008?

John said...

We had something similar this year except for the attendance part, which was dealt with earlier in the evening at the site level. The last year IDP released attendance by county was 2004. I asked in `08 and was turned down, but I publicized our Johnson County attendance (18,363).

My bet, and I don't have verification on this, is that the NH Sec of State doesn't like it. Theoretically the media could combine a binding delegate count with attendance and pretend they had a "vote" count.

JD said...

I get your point about why the IDP is coy on attendance. But since the Rs were already releasing a vote tally, why not use a system that reports local votes straight to a website? It need not capture the votes for Palin or Huckabee, but surely ten candidates could have seen their votes appear at the same time the caucus could have seen its vote total get published.

Missing precincts would not be such an embarrassment to the state party that way. There would be no paperwork to lose later.

I bet the reason they don't do it is to justify the existence of the party apparatus with their budgets and phones and press attention. It's all about control, or vanity, as is most of electoral politics.