Election 2016

Accusations of Fraud and Theft Fly After Iowa Vote: Here's the Lowdown

Some of the allegations are serious. But most are not.

Photo Credit: cspan.org

Chaos, petty bribery, coin tosses, candidates urging opponents’ supporters to defect, political parties hiding raw votes and using buggy software, outcomes too close to call or believe, conspiracy theories, do-over demands. These were all features from the starting line for the most important election in the world’s supposedly greatest democracy—Iowa’s 2016 presidential caucuses. Inside and outside Iowa, the candidates and their supporters, and reporters and bloggers responded with varying degrees of bewilderment, dismay or outrage.

No one should be surprised at the vagaries of elections. But Americans should keep a sense of proportion as the fingers get pointed. What’s most often missing in heated moments like the Iowa caucuses and immediate aftermath is how big of a problem, affecting how many votes, is really at issue?

A survey of the snafus from Iowa’s caucuses on both sides of the aisle illustrates the need for assessing the magnitude of problems before reacting to the rhetoric. The caucuses reveal how the participants, political party rules, technology and the propensity for human error all come into play.

On the Democratic side, there were small sparks (prompting big accusations) and systemic decisions raising substantive questions. On the Republican side, there were some similar issues but also old-fashioned voter suppression tactics that left Donald Trump so miffed he accused Ted Cruz of stealing his victory and demanding a do-over.

Democratic Suspicions

A colorful report of a Des Moines Democratic Party caucus from the Los Angeles Times’ Kate Linthicum shows how passionate and unpredictable caucuses can be. She found “chaos, lobbying, and even a little low-level bribery,” but offering someone a free beer to switch sides is not a major conspiracy. A more eyebrow-raising moment was captured by C-SPAN, when a pro-Hillary Clinton precinct captain didn’t appear to be accurately counting votes. That’s glaring, given the Democratic side’s photo finish, but it is not a systemic issue.

Discovering that Clinton’s campaign may have recruited and paid non-Iowans to be precinct captains was a more serious charge, as that moves toward gaming the process, as some news organizations reported.

“I think this raises a very serious concern,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, told Yahoo! News. Weaver “assured Bernie supporters that he’s not concerned specifically about this single out-of-state precinct captain, [but] he did insist that this could be a small link in a larger strategy by the Clinton campaign to have 'non-residents attempt to participate and be counted in the caucus.'"

That report, from UsUncut.com, shows how quickly bad behavior can be taken as the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg. It ended: “Ironically, Clinton’s people also accused Barack Obama’s team in 2008 with ‘systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people.’ It’s now very possible that she’s adopted such manipulations into her own political playbook.”

Other eyebrow-raising antics occurred, raising alarm but were inconsequential. When some caucuses ended in ties, a coin was used to decide the winner. But that’s the practice in a dozen states, so that should not have caused alarm—although the Sanders team later used a video of one coin toss to raise money. Reporters investigating said it occurred perhaps two dozen times out of nearly 1,700-plus Democratic caucus sites, benefitting both Sanders and Clinton.

The Des Moines Register reported on what was behind the totals from the very last Democrat precinct to turn in its results, which gave Sanders two additional state convention delegates out of 1,400 awarded, cutting Clinton’s Iowa “victory” to two delegates. Apparently, a poor soul who volunteered to chair the caucus—after no one else came forth—didn’t know he had to submit results, the paper said. While the whole world waited, he went home and next morning had an "Oh my god!" moment. That’s what you get when poll workers are last-minute, inexperienced volunteers.

However, that Register report raised the first substantial issue of magnitude: that Iowa’s Democratic Party would not release the raw caucus vote totals, but used a formula to award theoretical delegates to this spring’s statewide party convention. What’s even odder about that projection is that some 11,000 delegates, primarily divided between Sanders and Clinton, would first attend their county conventions. As NPR noted, this whole process doesn’t produce a clear winner in a tight race.

TheRegister raised the obvious question, “whether Sanders had won the popular vote in Iowa,” adding, “Sanders backers called for Iowa Democratic Party officials to release the raw vote totals.” But the party would not lift its veil on the raw vote totals nor its arcane calculations. That led Weaver to tell the Washington Post that his campaign would never know what really happened, for all the reasons already mentioned and one more: newly deployed vote-counting software from Microsoft didn’t perfectly perform either. 

The left-leaning blog, NakedCapitalism.com, slammed Microsoft for not having a feature on its vote-counting app that integrated newly registered voters into the state Democratic Party’s voter database, which they said could hurt Sanders.

USAToday noted that there were software problems for both parties. It posted tweets from Republicans saying the glitches were a Democratic conspiracy, because Microsoft founder “Bill Gates had donated ‘millions' to the Clinton Foundation, making the company's creation of the apps suspect.”

But the biggest question that will never be publically answered is, did the Iowa Democratic Party, knowingly or unknowingly, create a process that helped Clinton by making it harder for a candidate nipping at her heels to win?    

Republican Dirty Tricks

The GOP side of the aisle illustrated other dark facts about how elections work.  The biggest protests came from—you guessed it—Donald Trump. The surprising graciousness of his Iowa concession speech, after coming in second behind Ted Cruz, dissolved by Tuesday morning, when he accused Cruz of stealing the Iowa vote, according to a series of Tweets, and demanding the state party hold the caucuses over again.

Cruz pulled some slimy but legal and well-known moves from the GOP’s catalog of voter suppression tactics. He sent thousands of official-looking letters to newly registered voters who may have been inclined to back Trump, implying there was a legal penalty for not being properly registered if they showed up at caucuses. That’s a classic anti-turnout ruse that often targets first-time minority voters.

Cruz also sent out a false e-mail message saying that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race and his supporters should back Cruz. The Washington Post said those tactics may have stopped 3,000 people from caucusing, but noted Cruz won by a bigger margin. At 6:28am Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”

“No, Donald Trump Cannot Void Iowa Caucus Based on Cruz’s Alleged Lies,” was the headline of scholar Rick Hasen on his well-regarded ElectionLaw blog.

“Even if both of these activities by Cruz count as false campaign speech, any claim by Trump to an election do-over would almost certainly fail,” he wrote. “To begin with, there is no federal law (and no state Iowa law I’m aware of) against lying in campaigns. Further, the appropriate remedy for a lie in a campaign is most likely counter speech, not an election do-over, thanks to the First Amendment.”

There you have it. Iowa’s 2016 Democratic and Republican caucuses were filled with small-scale sparks and missteps that provoked anger and outrage, systemic decisions that controlled and masked how the overall count and winner would be chosen, and ugly voter suppression nastiness. As the presidential season begins, expect more twists and turns like this. But ignore the rhetoric and look at the motives and the magnitude. Was this human error or deliberate deception? Was it a rare event or wide systemic manipulation?

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).