For the hours in which no one knew who won the Iowa caucuses it became increasingly clear who lost: Iowa – and the rest of the United States.
This week’s debacle in Des Moines almost certainly means the end of the power of Iowa and its bewildering caucus process, a two-step fandango in church basements and community centres that even in good years often produces a muddled result, hard feelings – and almost no lasting influence. Look carefully at the Democratic National Convention this July in Milwaukee and you will see that Iowa’s caucuses account for less than 1 per cent of the delegates. Seldom has so much been made of so little.
But it is more than Iowa that was affected by the impasse in counting, and then reporting, the results from caucus sites across a state that otherwise is known for its competence, efficiency and quiet rectitude. This muddle in the Midwest is the third episode in two decades that calls into question the integrity, or at least the credibility, of the most sacred element of the American project: its elections.
“It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process,” Brad Parscale, U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, said as Iowa officials continued their counting while the nation waited. The remark was meant as a taunt. It actually spoke a truth.
Most Americans know how flawed their political system is: A few hours watching this winter’s House impeachment and Senate trial of Mr. Trump provide but a glimpse of the problems that have rendered Washington incompetent, impotent and immobile. Partisanship is rampant, the presidency is being overhauled, Congress is paralyzed, the Supreme Court has been politicized. And elections themselves are a mess.
Of course, elections haven’t always been pure. In 1824, after no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College, although Andrew Jackson had the most electoral votes, the House of Representatives was required under the 12th Amendment to elect the president. It chose John Quincy Adams, the son of a former president, instead of Jackson, a classic insurgent. The episode is now remembered as the “corrupt bargain.”
In 1960, John F. Kennedy prevailed in an election rife with irregularities, although the persistent folklore – that dead people voted by the hundreds in Illinois and thus stole the presidency from Richard Nixon – substantially overstates the truth. Nonetheless, no one at a period of emerging nations in Africa and Asia and Cold War tensions dared point to the Kennedy election as a beacon of democracy, or fairness.
The 21st century opened with an overtime election settled 36 days after Americans actually voted and was a spectacle that added “hanging chads” to the political lexicon, was a tangle of recounts and court decisions that finally was decided by the Supreme Court. The candidate with the most popular votes – Al Gore – lost the election. Some 16 years later came questions about Russian involvement in the election that sent Mr. Trump to the White House and launched a thousand conspiracy theories, some of which may be true. We may never know.
We did, however, learn something from Iowa. One of the enduring lessons is that a democracy that once operated with paper ballots has yet to master technology for its political system. “By many accounts, things went smoothly except for the technology,” said Barbara Trish, a political scientist at Iowa’s Grinnell College and a veteran observer of the state’s caucuses. “So interesting that technology will have been the death of them.”
We learned, moreover, that a fragile political system cannot bear indecision and delay. The failure to report the Iowa results quickly and unambiguously ate into the (diminishing) trust Americans have in their politics. New Hampshire, which holds its primary next Tuesday, is an ordinary private-ballot event, and election officials in the Granite State have surely taken the lesson from their cousins in Iowa: Get those results out quickly.
Oh yes, one more thing. For all the losses recorded during the Iowa caucuses, there will be a winner.
The study of elections is sometimes known as psephology. The term comes from the Greek word for “pebble,” and is derived from the practice of voting by dropping a pebble into an urn to signify an election choice. It turns out that Iowa was shaped by the pebbles that were swept into the state by glaciers in the Great Ice Age. Some of those remaining pebbles scattered across Iowa might have been put to good use Monday. At least they would have been counted with dispatch and precision. Maybe next time – if there is a next time for Iowa.