Iowa should ditch caucuses,or we should ditch Iowa

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

Today the Iowa state GOP announced that Rick Santorum beat Mitt Romney in this year's caucuses after all, but that they can't be totally sure because vote totals in eight precincts somehow went missing. Here's to hoping this results in a major rethinking of the caucus process, if not stripping Iowa of its first in the nation status altogether.

I've been a longtime critic of the outsized influence Iowa has in electing a president. Not only does it get showered with attention from candidates who voters in later states won't have a chance to support, but most of its population is apathetic about the process. Just roughly one out of every seven registered Republicans participated in this year's caucuses. And even in 2008, when there were hotly-contested races in both parties and record turnout, only 17 percent of registered Iowa voters took part.

News accounts of campaigning in Iowa provide a distorted picture of what's going on there, because there's a natural bias to quote voters who are knowledgeable and passionate. The reality is, there's a lot of apathy among most Iowans -- you'll even run into those at events who can't remember who they voted for just four years earlier.

Beyond this, the caucus system itself is a joke. On the Democratic side, it's completely undemocratic (no pun intended). For those unfamiliar, there's no secret ballot. Voters meet in rooms, break up into groups of their preferred candidates, and argue with each other and try to intimidate and peer pressure people to sway their votes. In a caucus I attended in 2008, I saw an older woman harass a young female voter for supporting Barack Obama, yelling in her face that it was her duty as a female to back Hillary Clinton. If your preferred candidate doesn't get at least 15 percent in the room, you have to switch your vote to somebody else or go home. 

The Republican side at least has a secret ballot. But it still forces people to gather at night for a town hall style meeting, rather than give people the flexibility of voting all day. And the procedure is kind of slapdash, opening itself up to all sorts of possibilities. In the precinct I went to, a husband and wife (who was a Ron Paul supporter) were running the caucus and their younger than voting age kids were counting the "ballots," which were really just slips of paper. Then they added up the numbers on a piece of scrap paper, and filled it in on an official reporting sheet, or form E, which I've posted a photo of above. Now, let me be clear. I don't mean to impugn their integrity or imply that there were any irregularities in the caucus I attended. But the point is, it's an antiquated process that leaves itself open to abuse or problems stemming from human error. So, to start with, Iowans have been entrusted with this tremendous responsibility that they didn't earn. And now, after all the millions spent, the hard work of candidates and their volunteers, and all the effort of the media to cover it, Iowa officials tell us that they were wrong about the winner two weeks ago, but they can't really say for sure who won because results went missing. Are you kidding me?

The choice before Iowa should be made clear: either they reform their voting system to one that's fair, democratic and competently run, or they lose their anointed status.

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