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The Iowa Caucuses Count Will Never Be Perfect

DES MOINES, Iowa — Jeffrey Goetz is a 59-year-old attorney who relocated from California to Iowa in 2001. Soon after the move, he became enchanted with the retail nature of politics in the Hawkeye State and volunteered to chair his precinct’s Democratic caucus night in 2002. Fourteen years later, he’s preparing for his eighth1 go-round running the show for the Des Moines’s 62nd precinct,2 where he lives in the city’s Waterbury neighborhood.

In his volunteer role as chairman, he had to secure the location (this year, it will be in the Merrill Middle School gym), obtain a parking permit, make arrangements for traffic control, organize the registration process, and send letters to the hundreds of registered Democrats in his precinct as well as other community members, among other duties — all before today. But this year, he’s excited about a tech upgrade that will lighten his load — if only slightly — the night of the main event.

The Iowa Democratic Party, along with its Republican counterpart, has partnered with Microsoft to launch an app that will replace the telephone-keypad-based system that’s been used to add up and report Iowa caucus results from both parties for years. The app includes fail-safe measures to prevent incorrect data entry and is expected to speed up the reporting process so final results can be verified in a matter of days, rather than weeks. Precinct caucus chairs will enter their counts for each candidate on the app’s reporting dashboard, and each state party will be able to access those results immediately on the app’s validation dashboard, where they can see which precincts have reported, which data needs to be validated and which data is ready to release.

“To be honest, I’m less concerned about conducting the caucus and more concerned about crowd control and keeping the peace,” Goetz said. “But the app will speed up the process and ensure a lot of integrity. In the caucus trainings, there’s a lot of moving parts, so I think any incremental thing that makes things go smoother, faster, better, all helps the overall cause.”

For many Republicans, mentions of an app-based attempt to modernize the presidential election process conjure bitter memories of ORCA, the Mitt Romney campaign’s colossal failure of an attempt to revamp the get-out-the-vote effort four years ago. The premise of the app was for volunteers nationwide to track in real time which registered voters had and hadn’t shown up to cast a ballot, which would then guide the campaign’s Election Day outreach efforts.

“I think it was a great idea. In past elections, that was all done manually,” said Mike McInerney, a 25-year-old insurance broker in West Des Moines who campaigned for Romney in 2012. “But when we went to launch it the morning of Election Day, it crashed. For the entire morning of that day, I wasn’t able to log in, and by the time I could, there were other issues. … It was just a poorly executed idea. There were great intentions, but it wasn’t executed properly.”

If this app functions better than ORCA, it will help address a more fundamental issue that came to a head in the 2012 Republican caucuses, when Rick Santorum’s 34-vote win was announced more than two weeks after the state GOP declared Mitt Romney the preliminary winner of Iowa (the “preliminary” part didn’t get much attention in all the media coverage). And Romney’s victory wasn’t the only thing lost in the lengthy verification process: The votes from eight of the state’s 1,774 precincts were confirmed to be lost as well. The debacle led to widespread scrutiny of the caucus process and its ability to precisely represent voters’ preferences.

So the Microsoft app will fix all that? It’ll probably help, but any large-scale data-gathering process will have a margin of error, and eight of 1,774 precincts represents less than half a percentage point. The new Microsoft app may help aggregate the caucus results, but those results are still reached in a decidedly 19th-century way, in which Republicans write their preferred candidate on a blank sheet of paper and Democrats play a glorified game of musical chairs (sans chairs). Under those conditions, a 99.5 percent return seems impressive.

Even beyond the caucuses, all elections have some margin of error — the 2000 presidential election is a perfect example. In the wake of that election, then-professor of mathematical and statistical sciences at the University of Colorado at Denver William Briggs wrote, “Because of mechanical, electronic, and human errors, the actual precision of vote counting is several orders of magnitude worse than what is needed to determine an election as close as Florida’s” and found that the margin of error nationwide was between 1 percent and 2 percent.

“We want [the caucuses] to function like a finely tuned machine — they were never meant to do that,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “The people who are running it — they’re not professionals. They’re volunteers, and sometimes you have to pull teeth and beg people to do it. To expect it to be this finely tuned, sophisticated machine is unrealistic, but I guess that’s where we are now.”

The idea that the caucuses should be a well-oiled machine is one perhaps held by the media and the nation; the “with great power comes great responsibility” cliché comes to mind when discussing the first race in the nation, which affects the states that follow. But as any Iowan will tell you, the caucuses are as much a community-building event as they are an exercise in data collection, and the most avid participants want to keep it that way.

“I know there’s a lot of talk nationwide about whether the Iowa caucuses are relevant, and if it’s an antiquated way of voting,” McInerney said. “But the caucuses mimic what the founding fathers wanted — a community gathering, discussing their views and values, challenging each other and then casting a vote, which kicks off the process of selecting the next leader of the free world. It’s quite an amazing thing that all these years later we still do it that way, and it still has a major impact.”

Can you explain the Iowa Caucus voting in 30 seconds?


  1. Iowa caucuses are held every other year.

  2. The precinct boundaries were redrawn with the U.S. Census in 2010. Before that, Goetz was located in the 70th precinct.

Hayley Munguia is a former social media editor and a data reporter for FiveThirtyEight.