A caucus is an election style where participants come together in a meeting to first discuss, then vote. The process is more transparent than most U.S. elections because you can see who can vote, who did vote, observe the vote count, and (hopefully) observe the chain of custody. With caucuses, chain of custody has been a weak area. Sometimes party bosses set up procedures to remove chain of custody from public view, and in that way, they can control the outcome no matter how transparent the rest of it is. It doesn’t need to be this way.
What’s meant by “chain of custody” in a caucus? Simple: The count happens two places, first at the local precinct and next at the state where they add up all the local results. If vote counts can be changed as they move from precinct to state, and if this can be achieved without anyone seeing it, you have a chain of custody problem which can create “incurable uncertainty” for election results.
Republican Party chiefs grudgingly admit this happened in Iowa’s 2012 presidential caucus, where results traveling from precinct to the state reporting center got lost, and produced impossible totals (such as more votes than voters) in dozens of locations.
At first the party bosses announced that Mitt Romney had won; they were forced to reconsider when a false total favoring Romney was flagged from Appanoose County by caucus participant Edward True (true story, name and all). At first party officials “stood by” the false number; next decided not to comment until further notice, and finally said they would never know the true result (incurable uncertainty), while admitting that, apparently, a different guy won (Rick Santorum). Even more egregious chain of custody breaches took place in Maine’s 2012 caucus, and Nevada came up with just plain impossible numbers.
This can only happen if observable chain of custody is missing or delayed. It’s missing when state party officials announce a total without also publishing 100 percent of the precinct results. It’s delayed when election officials claim they won’t release all the parts of the total until days, or weeks, after they announce the total. Of course, because the total is a sum of its parts, you have to know the parts before you can know the whole, so it makes no sense to announce a winner but claim you can’t release precinct results until later.
If you hide the parts and a guy like True says one of them is false, as long as you delay publication of other parts you can still cling to a wrong total by shifting some of the other precinct results around.
ELECTIONS ARE POLITICAL
Political ethics follow a different script than you and I do in everyday life, partly because we don’t hold politicians accountable as rigorously as we should. The duty of party leaders is to deliver a win. If obscuring a portion of the process helps deliver that win, integrity loses.
In regular elections software counts the votes, automatically obscuring counting from the public. But caucuses (usually) don’t use software to count votes at precinct level. The only place left to obscure the process is in the transfer from precinct to state totals. Idealistic ethics get picked off like ticks as political players move up the ladder. Moving vote totals from precinct to state levels transfers vote data from the most idealistic participants (local citizens) to the most ambitious, beholden, and pragmatic players (state political bosses).
Election integrity doesn’t need to depend on trust and confidence in someone else’s ethics.
SOLUTIONS FOR CAUCUS CHAIN OF CUSTODY
In 2015, Microsoft announced that it was providing a technology solution for Iowa’s 2016 caucuses, providing both a technology to transmit precinct results and a media center to display them in “real time.”
That’s a great start but not the whole solution. The Sanders campaign, and probably all the other campaigns, know that and made efforts to address it.
Did Sanders shun Microsoft? Or just set up prudent checks and balances?
Shortly before the caucus, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said that in addition to Microsoft’s technology his campaign had developed their own precinct reporting app. This was reported as “suspicion” of Microsoft, casting the issue in terms of trust rather than focusing on the more essential issues of election transparency and accountability. The Sanders campaign said their parallel method was to check and confirm and make sure precinct results were available timely. MSNBC, however, used the term “suspicious” four times and “conspiracy theory” once in their coverage of the Sanders app.
Headline: “Sanders camp suspicious of Microsoft’s influence in Iowa Caucus” …”The arrangement has aroused the suspicions of aides to Sanders ” … “During the 2004 presidential election, for instance, there was widespread suspicion on the left about Diebold voting machines.” … “With Sanders supporters already suspicious of meddling from forces they see as hostile to their candidate, including the Democratic Party and corporations, the backup system could help tamp down questions and conspiracy theories.”
MSNBC missed the point and diverted attention away from accountability to trust and confidence. Here’s how MSNBC’s reporting could have been vastly more helpful. Compare:
“The Iowa Democratic Party has always believed in the importance of new election technology, and … we completely trust the integrity of their staff and the app. — MSNBC reporting, quoting Sam Lau
Instead, they could have talked about something like this:
“Everyone can see and check for themselves that votes are counted correctly at the precinct and anyone can compare what they see with what was reported by the state to make sure it matches.”
Or, instead of:
“He has complete confidence in the Iowa Democratic Party, and absolute trust on integrity,” (MSNBC quoting Pete D’Alessandro)
They could have said something like this:
“Anyone can videotape the count and take a picture of the results form; anyone can send any of this to their social network using Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, text messages or anything they want, so everyone who wants to compare local results with official results from the state party (or Microsoft) can check and balance to their heart’s content.”
In fact, when Microsoft and the parties say they have developed complex algorithms to detect improbable numbers and impossible scenarios, that’s nice but in addition they could do something quite simple: Using everyday technology, precinct officials can take a picture of their signed, witnessed results form and send it along with their typed-in results. This requires no fancy mathematics and can resolve problems immediately. Which calls into question why 48 hours is needed. According to John McCormick or Bloomberg News, “The state parties have also put in place a plan to get all the paperwork from the precincts to Des Moines within 48 hours of the caucuses, should a speedy auditing be needed.”
A “speedy auditing” should always be done, whether the race is tight or not, and there is no reason it can’t be done on election night. Which calls into question the next statement:
“Once the precinct figures are approved by the state party, they’ll be posted online in real time for the public to follow. … The parties and political observers may have an easier time tracking the caucus result thanks to Microsoft’s technology, but that doesn’t mean we’ll know the Iowa winners on February 1.”
Why not? With all the technology Microsoft is putting into this, and all the money behind the U.S. presidential race, why can’t we just get it right on election night? Maybe we need Apple iPhones instead of Microsoft apps and algorithms.
In the end, elections and caucuses don’t belong to political parties and candidates. They belong to voters. Technology is widely available to all and should be used that way. Indeed, technology can provide a great boost to public transparency and facilitate “speedy auditing” — if political party chiefs truly want that.