A Silver Lining In Iowa’s Caucus Mess?

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I personally have never been a big fan of Iowa’s caucus system. Just because a person is born in Iowa doesn’t mean they have to adhere to supporting all of the state’s eccentricities. For instance I am also opposed to thinking that Republicans are the go to party when things get screwed up. 

My observations through a long life have been that Republicans are generally the ones who screw things up and Democrats then have to come in and clean up the mess. I note in this area that Iowa’s once vaunted public school system seems to continue on a downward trajectory as Republicans continue to pretend there is no problem. But I digress.

Sure seems like the vast majority of opinion has declared Iowa’s caucuses last Monday as a mess. I will state it this way: the instantaneous reporting of results, right or wrong, did not happen the way Americans have come to expect. There were glitches in the systems. However, at least in this instance, paper backups were put in place in case of such glitches.

So here is what I see as a couple of lessons to be learned from what transpired:

First, is it better to get the results of an election fast or accurately? I would vote for accurately over fast any day. 

In our need for speed society of the past two decades we have taken most of the checks out of our election equipment. Most of the country’s current election equipment has no real backup system, such as hand marked paper ballots, that can be used to verify electronic election machines. What has happened since the “Help America Vote Act” of the early 2000s is that there is no way to verify counts or to recount if there is a system failure. When accurate elections are the very backbone of a democracy this is very bad.

Electronic voting machines have been shown in test after test to be quite hackable by today’s mobile phones at medium distances form the voting machine itself. This certainly makes outcomes of elections questionable at best. Even beyond that, software coding for electronic voting machines is not held by the government for the people, but instead is proprietary code kept by private companies. How does the public know that the coding does not favor one side or the other, especially when there is not verifiable back up system?

While Iowa did not use electronic voting machines in the caucuses, it did use an electronic system. That electronic system got screwed up. Fortunately Iowa did include a paper back up system that consisted of paper and pens that could be hand counted. It is a slower system, but it will in the end most likely be accurate.

And to me that is the takeaway. As I have written about many times before, Ireland bought some electronic voting machines and before they were fully utilized  in actual elections they were tested thoroughly and found to be totally unreliable. Reliability and accuracy were much more important that quick results and millions of dollars of voting machines became a few thousand dollars of scrap metal.

Most other Western democracies understand that accuracy is the most important attribute of elections. They have found that paper ballots that can be preserved can be counted relatively quickly. When a government is set to rule for several years, waiting a few moments for accurate results is a very small price to pay.

So the most important thing in an election is the accuracy of the results, not the speed with which they are reported. This leads immediately to lesson #2 from Monday’s caucuses:

Balloting must be done in such a way that the ballots may be counted in public and also stored such that they can be retrieved for future recounts and audits. I would state it more simply by saying that voting should be done with paper and pencil.

Monday’s SNAFUs should be less about shaming Iowa and more about what lessons are there to be learned about a healthy democracy.

The lessons were that voting shouldn’t be done on unreliable, unverifiable voting systems, but instead on paper ballots that can be counted and stored for future recounts and audits. Real reliable and verifiable elections are the very backbone of a true democracy.

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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