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For decades, Iowa’s position as first to vote in presidential primaries has empowered the state with an outsize ability to influence the race for the most important office in the nation. Iowa caucuses night is typically a time full of excitement and heartbreak as early victories and losses establish momentum for candidates' White House runs.
This year, however, the dominant emotion for Democratic presidential candidates was frustration. A new smartphone app that the 1,679 precincts in the state were supposed to use to tally their results failed, setting off a night filled with chaos and confusion. As of Thursday morning, the full results had still not been released. With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Pete Buttigieg held a narrow lead, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren close behind.
The mess is the most recent example of controversy that has become a pattern in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses. In 2016, reports of irregularities in the voting process led to uncertainty over the results in a race that Hillary Clinton narrowly won against Bernie Sanders. In 2012, Mitt Romney was the initially named the winner of the Republican primary, only for Rick Santorum to be awarded the victory 16 days later.
Why there’s debate
Monday night’s missteps have brought long-simmering discontent with the Iowa caucuses to a boil. Complaints typically focus on two specific issues: the disproportionate influence the state has by going first and shortcomings of the complex caucus voting system. These two factors combine to inject undue importance on a discriminatory and unreliable process, critics argue.
Iowa’s population is 90 percent white. Giving a state that is much less diverse than the nation as a whole the opportunity to vote first disadvantages minority candidates and decreases the value of voters of color, some argue.
Voting in the caucuses is done in person and through a complicated system that includes multiple rounds of votes, cajoling between supporters of opposing candidates and, on occasion, coin flips. This process creates unnecessary confusion and disenfranchises those who can’t attend the vote on a specific night, particularly people with disabilities, critics say.
A decision on whether Iowa will lose its first-in-the-nation status or switch to a more typical primary voting system likely won’t come for some time. President Trump responded to Monday’s events by promising to maintain the status quo. “As long as I am President, Iowa will stay where it is,” he tweeted.
No amount of rule adjustments can fix the caucuses
“The clearest picture that will form is that for all their benefits to the state: the Iowa caucuses are, at their core, unworkable.” — Editorial, the Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
Officials had years to prepare — and still failed
“Iowa’s Democratic Party had four whole years to prepare for last night’s caucuses. It knew there would be a multicandidate scramble to challenge President Trump. It nonetheless proved it was not up to the challenge of making the contest go smoothly.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner
The caucuses have been chaotic since their inception 150 years ago
“The Iowa caucuses have been a hot mess for more than a century. Adopted from the moment Iowa entered the union in 1846, the caucuses instantly became riddled with drama by inept and corrupt party leaders.” — Michael S. Rosenwald, Washington Post
The app mess accelerated the inevitable
“There can be no doubting it now, not after so many years spent in the crosshairs, not after active presidential candidates began challenging its privileged position atop the nominating calendar, and certainly not after Monday night’s debacle that left seven candidates and millions of viewers waiting for results that never came: Iowa’s reign is over.” — Tim Alberta, Politico
Iowa should switch to a primary
“It should go without saying that there is a better way to hold an election — the method used by the overwhelming majority of states. The state can simply pick a day to hold a primary, give voters a full day to cast ballots, and even allow voters who can’t make it on election day to vote early or absentee.” — Ian Millhiser, Vox
Caucuses are exclusionary and anti-democratic
“The caucuses — especially in this cursed year — demand hours of commitment. This limits the number, and kind, of people who can attend, despite Iowa Democrats allowing satellite caucuses this year. Many people who work at night still cannot attend. People who care for children or other relatives cannot attend. People who have other commitments cannot attend.” — Jeffrey Toobin, CNN
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Gen J. Puskar/AP