If you’re on edge waiting for the results Tuesday night from New Hampshire, worrying that all you’ll get is the mess we got in Iowa, we have good news for you: That’s extremely unlikely.
The reason has nothing to do with the relative competence of the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic parties and everything to do with the type of event. New Hampshire holds a primary, Iowa held caucuses, and that means greater potential for chaos was built into the Iowa process before a single precinct reported its results.
Primaries are what you probably think of when you think of an election: Voters show up at their polling place anytime within a certain window, cast their vote privately and leave. If there is no line, they can be in and out in a matter of minutes. And at the end of the day, each precinct simply reports its totals.
There is, of course, room for error and confusion in this process. Long lines can delay results. Voting machines can malfunction. A close race can require a recount. Just think “Florida 2000” if you’re tempted to believe regular voting can’t go wrong.
But the sort of systemwide breakdown we saw in Iowa is extremely rare in primaries.
In caucuses like Iowa’s, participants must show up at their precinct at a specific time and publicly declare their allegiance.
Caucusgoers physically align themselves — Buttigieg supporters here, Warren supporters there — and precinct leaders record the totals for each candidate. The candidates who don’t have enough support to be “viable” are eliminated; their supporters have a chance to realign with viable candidates, and precinct leaders record the new totals.
Then the leaders have to calculate how many state delegate equivalents each candidate has earned and record that, too. The numbers can be fractions; for instance, in Polk County, which includes Des Moines, Bernie Sanders received 106.88 state delegate equivalents based on the initial results.
This process involves actual calculations, not just a simple count. All of the recording is done by hand, on worksheets. And at the end of the night, the precincts have to submit three sets of results — the first alignment and the final alignment and the state delegate equivalents — to the state party.
Think about all of that, and you could be forgiven for wondering how the process ever goes right.
This is a major reason that many people don’t like caucuses: They’re incredibly complicated. And besides the potential that creates for confusion, the complexity prevents many people from participating at all.
Caucusgoers have to stay as long as the process takes. It could be 45 minutes or four hours, but they can’t leave early, or their vote won’t be counted. They often have to stand. There is no privacy: Your family and your neighbors will all know which candidate you supported. It is, in other words, a minefield — if not an impossibility — for people who work irregular hours, can’t afford child care, have disabilities, or are in abusive relationships and do not want to express their political choices in front of their partner.
All of these concerns have contributed to a decline in caucuses. Primaries are now the standard in an overwhelming majority of states, including several that used to hold caucuses.