Why Is It So Hard to Count Votes in the Iowa Caucus?

So apparently Santorum did win the Iowa caucus.  Maybe.  Eight precincts’ numbers can’t be certified.  Justin Wolfers tweets:

Iowa, you are a joke: GOP finds errors in caucus results from 131 precincts, & has no count for 8.

I attended only one caucus meeting out of the hundreds across Iowa.  But let me use that to explain why it’s entirely possible that out of about 122,000 votes, several hundred are wrong or cannot be certified.

At the caucus I attended—in Altoona—this is how people voted:

[Photo credit: Lynn Vavreck]


And this is the process by which those ballots were counted:

[Photo credit: Lynn Vavreck]


It’s not a high-tech operation.  Nor does it need to be, since getting the caucus vote margin right down to every last vote isn’t really necessary.  After all, the caucus vote doesn’t directly determine the number of Iowa delegates that the candidates will receive.   Even if the caucus vote did determine delegates, no voting technology is going to make the process perfect.  In fact, paper ballots and human counting might even be more accurate than more sophisticated kinds of voting technology.

And even if, as Jon Bernstein notes, the real importance of the caucus result is how it’s evaluated by media and by party leaders, I still don’t think that the 2012 “Iowa recount” matters.  Maybe Santorum would have gotten a bit more momentum and maybe Romney would have faced more skeptical stories going into New Hampshire.  But Romney was still going to win New Hampshire.  And I doubt the other candidates would have dropped out had Santorum won by 34 votes instead of losing by 8.   We’d still be looking at a Romney nomination.

6 Responses to Why Is It So Hard to Count Votes in the Iowa Caucus?

  1. Lynn Vavreck January 19, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    John and I should note that we were guests at the caucus in Altoona, Iowa and extremely grateful to be invited. We met Mr. David Dixon and his daughter at a Pizza Ranch in Altoona the night before the caucus and after a conversation with him about the GOP field, he invited us to attend his caucus with him. In the photos I took above, it is Mr. Dixon who is holding the Altoona ballot (in fact that may be HIS ballot!) and he is standing in the blue fleece jacket in the photo where ballots are being counted. We appreciate all the hospitality, thank you to the people in Altoona, Iowa for letting us observe the process up close.

  2. Matthew Shugart January 19, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    Those paper ballots and the hand-counting look a lot like how elections are conducted in New Zealand and the UK, among (many) other places. So I don’t quite get the implication that what we see in the photos explains why so many votes might just go astray. As the paragraph after the photos notes, these mechanisms are possibly more accurate than “sophisticated” casting and counting systems, anyway. I would imagine that the breakdown in Iowa happened somewhere else in the process.

    (Lynn: cool photos! Are there more?)

    • John Sides January 19, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

      Matthew: My only point was that hand-counting thousands of paper ballots — if other precincts voted like this one — is bound to produce errors. And, as I wrote and you noted, maybe it produces fewer errors than other more “sophisticated” methods. Thus it seems a little strong to call Iowa “a joke,” as did Wolfers.

      (P.S. There are more photos!)

  3. Bjorn January 20, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    There will always be counting errors in (relatively) big operations like this. An important source of ambiguity is interpretation of ballot marking. The average age of those voting may be high, and they do not necessarily hit the line perfectly with their marks. Different people may interpret a mark differently, creating differences between count and recount. Or: Is it really a mark on this ballot? Isn’t it actually two marks here? And so on. Here, technology almost always are more precise.

    • Cam January 20, 2012 at 11:17 am #

      Or, just a well-designed paper ballot that visually separates the options. And spells their names correctly.

  4. Russ Rogers April 6, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    There were several Caucuses that “misreported” votes by a factor of around 10. 50 votes for Romney, instead of 5. 22 votes for Romney, instead of 2. 45 votes for Santorum, instead of 4.

    If that happened in ONE precinct, I could chalk that up to data entry error by a tired and stressed Precinct Captain who is working with a spreadsheet system that they don’t know how to run. But that “error” happened again and again and again. I can only chalk that up to a nod and wink culture of fraud.

    There are NO RESULTS for EIGHT PRECINCTS and you don’t seem to care! You say, “I still don’t think that the 2012 “Iowa recount” matters.” It will effect the outcome for those people in those eight precincts!

    Iowa wants to spend MILLIONS to institute a Voter Photo ID Law that will only protect the Vote against the specter of “Voter Impersonation,” people pretending to be someone else to cast a vote. I doubt Iowa can find 8 single instances of Voter Impersonation in the State over the last decade. And yet, in this ONE party caucus EIGHT precincts *POOF* they are GONE! 131 are questionable.

    It’s not the problem of pen and paper and counting votes by hand that is the problem. It’s the INTEGRITY of the VOTE, the solemn duty of Precinct Officers need to take their job.

    The inaccuracy didn’t come from the PAPER and PEN ballots. It came from the HONESTY of the people running the system! The system is BROKEN! It needs fixed. It will not cost MILLIONS. It will just means that a real system analysis will have to be made. And new rules, procedures, TRAINING and double-checks will have to take place to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the vote. It’s not that hard. It involves a minimal amount of data entry with a computer, but it’s not rocket-science.

    If people showed up to vote and they found their polling place locked, with a note on the door that read, “We’re sorry, but your vote doesn’t count this year, so we’re not counting it,” we would be outraged. How can we be so cavalier about taking people’s votes and misreporting them or losing them entirely? We might as well just randomly close a handful of precincts. I mean, it probably won’t effect the outcome much. Does your vote really matter?