Persistent errors and inconsistencies in the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus night precinct results are raising questions about the overall accuracy of the first-in-the-nation contest and preventing the Associated Press from declaring a winner, a week after Iowans first pledged their support for their candidates on Feb. 3.
Analyses by media organizations and presidential campaigns have identified mistakes in results tallied on the caucus math worksheets that volunteer leaders were responsible for at each of the state’s more than 1,765 precincts. There are instances where tallies didn’t add up or precinct leaders allocated the wrong number of delegates to some candidates.
An analysis by the New York Times found the results were “riddled with errors and inconsistencies.”
Over the weekend, the IDP published updated results and corrected totals in 55 precincts, after presidential campaigns submitted a list of 95 precincts they identified as having incorrect results.
The persistent inaccuracies are raising concerns among some local precinct volunteers and members of the state party, some of whom have urged IDP leadership to correct the errors in order to preserve the accuracy of the results.
But in legal guidance issued to members of the Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee over the weekend, IDP Chair Troy Price said the party cannot change the calculations. In an email sent to SCC members, Price cited legal analysis by IDP attorney Shayla McCormally which says the caucus math worksheets constitute a “legal voting record of the caucus” similar to a ballot in a primary election.
“The incorrect math on the Caucus Math Worksheets must not be changed to ensure the integrity of the process. Most importantly the Worksheet is the caucus chair and secretary's 'certification' of the results as required by Iowa Code 43.4(2-3),” McCormally wrote. “The seriousness of the record is made clear by the language at the bottom stating that any misrepresentation of the information is a crime. Therefore, any changes or tampering with the sheet could result in a claim of election interference or misconduct.”
IDP State Central Committee Member Holly Christine Brown says she’s “deeply concerned” that the party would preserve results that are incorrect, saying it undermines trust in the overall outcome of the caucuses.
“We've asked the public to trust us. We made the point of saying we'll take our time because if we can't be timely, we should at least be accurate. Now it seems as though we are doing neither of those things,” Brown wrote in an email to other State Central Committee members.
Some caucus leaders told Iowa Public Radio that in past cycles there likely has also been some level of error in the caucus night reporting system, which involves more than a thousand trained volunteers running multi-step calculations and then relaying their results to party staffers to be transcribed and published.
Speaking with reporters Monday afternoon, Price responded to a question about whether the caucus night confusion indicates results have never been accurate.
"We have more information available to us this year. And so I think that what this process has shown to us is that it has allowed us to see more behind the scenes," Price said. "But beyond that, you know, we are going to continue to work to make sure that these accurate...that these results are as acurate as possible."
This year, for the first time, the IDP released three sets of caucus night results, publishing first alignment and final alignment numbers as well as the state delegate equivalents, which historically have determined the technical winner of the Iowa caucuses.
The alignment totals are the raw number of supporters each presidential candidate won in each precinct, demonstrating at different stages of the night which candidates had at least 15 percent of the support in the room and were therefore considered viable and ultimately able to win delegates.
These alignments numbers can be considered analogous to the popular vote in Iowa’s own version of the Electoral College.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign and supporters called for the release of these numbers following the 2016 election, as part of a push to increase transparency and accessibility at the caucuses.
The alignment numbers also give the public an expanded view of the tabulations of precinct leaders, some of which were calculated incorrectly.
During a pre-caucus night walkthrough of an Iowa City precinct, Tom Carsner, who had served as a temporary chair for multiple cycles, remarked to Iowa Public Radio that caucusgoers would likely tolerate some margin of error in the caucus night tabulations.
“I think the goal of the caucus chair, you want to walk away with people feeling that it was a fair process. And it may not be perfectly accurate, but within two, three or four,” he said. “I mean, things happen. But if it’s reasonably close, people are happy.”
But with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sanders separated by a margin of 2.774 state delegate equivalents in the IDP’s current results, there is virtually no room for error.
The Associated Press has said that it cannot declare a winner in the Iowa caucuses at this stage due to “the delays in getting the data and after observing irregularities in the results once they did arrive.”
Pending a request from the Sanders and Buttigieg campaigns for a partial recanvass, it’s not clear when the results may be finalized, even as the nation’s politicos and the presidential candidates themselves turn their attention to Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, where party leaders have said their process will be “100 percent perfect."
This story has been updated to add a response from IDP Chair Troy Price on whether caucus night results have never been accurate.