As the Iowa Democratic Party struggled and failed Monday night to report the results of its presidential caucus, party officials here looked at their Midwestern brethren and breathed a sigh of relief that Washington has abandoned the caucus system and the complications that come with it.
Iowa Democrats did release a batch of caucus results Tuesday afternoon, but it was still unclear when final results would be available.
Here is how voting would have worked in the Iowa caucuses if everything went as planned:
At 7 p.m., voters reported to 1,700 school gyms and community centers across the state, and “voted” by gathering in small groups based on their preferred candidate. Volunteers counted the people in each group and tallied the totals. If any candidate’s group was too small (below 15% of the total), those voters were then asked to move to their second choice, with other voters cajoling them to join. Volunteers then tallied those second totals.
Then, the volunteer precinct chief of the caucus was supposed to use a new smartphone app to submit three numbers to the state Democratic Party — the first count of voters, the second count of voters and the number of “state delegate equivalents” each candidate should get based on the second count of voters.
Even if all went well, it was not a simple system. Things did not go well.
The app failed. Some caucus chiefs never even downloaded it. The backup phone system left people on hold for hours.
“As someone who helped run the WA caucus in 2016, I’m so [expletive] glad we are not doing that again this year,” Jamal Raad, a campaign spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee and a former spokesman for the Washington Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter Monday night. “Caucuses should end.”
Washington’s caucuses, which state Democrats have long used to choose delegates to the party’s presidential nominating convention, have essentially ended. This year, for the first time, both the Republican and Democratic parties will award all their pledged presidential delegates based on a regular primary election.
That primary, on March 10, will function much the same as the primary elections held every August. Voters will receive their ballots in the mail instead of commuting to neighborhood elementary schools and gymnasiums. They will cast their ballots at home and put them in the mail or a drop box, instead of huddling into little groups. Rather than volunteers counting how many people are in each huddle, election workers will examine each paper ballot, confirming that signatures match, and then feed them into electronic scanners for counting.
The whole process will be run and overseen by county elections administrators and the secretary of state, not state political parties and legions of volunteers, as in Iowa.
“Having elections officials who are trained and have actually conducted elections running a primary is really important,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, said.
Wyman, who has long been an advocate of switching to a primary, also noted that primaries draw far more participants than do caucuses. In 2016, for instance, Washington’s Democratic caucuses drew 220,000 participants, while the Democratic primary, which didn’t even count, drew more than 800,000 voters.
“It’s the way people are used to voting,” Wyman said. “People don’t instinctively know how to attend a caucus.”
It will, of course, still take a while to know who won. As with every election in Washington, with ballots arriving by mail, generally only around half the ballots will be counted by election night. In Iowa, because of the technology snafu, what was to take only a few hours stretched over two days.
Both state parties in Washington, but Democrats in particular, have previously been reticent to use a primary instead of a caucus. The Washington Legislature created the state’s presidential primary in 1989, but Democrats have previously always stuck with the caucus system to allocate delegates, rendering the primary meaningless. State Republicans have usually used both the primary and caucus to award delegates.
But last year the Legislature amended some of the primary rules and bumped up the date, from mid-May to early March, so both parties are all-in on the primary now.
“If there’s anything I’m proudest of in the last three years, it’s pushing us to go to a primary rather than a caucus,” state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said. She called the Iowa problems “very frustrating” and said the app in Iowa was untested.
“If you’re going to send something out to thousands of users like that, you darn well better do testing,” Podlodowski said.
Back in 2016, then-Washington Democratic Party Chair Jaxon Ravens defended the lower-turnout process, saying Democrats “enjoy the opportunity at least once every four years to sit down and talk to their neighbors.”
But last night, as confusion reigned in Iowa, Ravens was singing a different tune.
“It was clear by 2014 that the caucus system was at a breaking point,” he wrote on Twitter. “Running caucuses is like hosting the Super Bowl with 2-4X as many attendees, several teams playing & at thousands of locations. Try to do this perfectly & quickly with a small # of staff, volunteers, no money, no halftime & with everyone watching.”