Caucus Integrity

By February 1, 2016December 5th, 2016OBSERVATION

A caucus is an election style where participants come together in a meeting to first discuss, then vote. The process is more transparent than most U.S. elections because you can see who can vote, who did vote, observe the vote count, and (hopefully) observe the chain of custody. With caucuses, chain of custody has been a weak area. Sometimes party bosses set up procedures to remove chain of custody from public view, and in that way, they can control the outcome no matter how transparent the rest of it is. It doesn’t need to be this way.

What’s meant by “chain of custody” in a caucus? Simple: The count happens two places, first at the local precinct and next at the state where they add up all the local results. If vote counts can be changed as they move from precinct to state, and if this can be achieved without anyone seeing it, you have a chain of custody problem which can create “incurable uncertainty” for election results.

Republican Party chiefs grudgingly admit this happened in Iowa’s 2012 presidential caucus, where results traveling from precinct to the state reporting center got lost, and produced impossible totals (such as more votes than voters) in dozens of locations.1
At first the party bosses announced that Mitt Romney had won; they were forced to reconsider when a false total favoring Romney was flagged from Appanoose County by caucus participant Edward True (true story, name and all). At first party officials “stood by” the false number2; next decided not to comment until further notice3, and finally said they would never know the true result (incurable uncertainty),4 while admitting that, apparently, a different guy won (Rick Santorum).5 Even more egregious chain of custody breaches took place in Maine’s 2012 caucus,6 and Nevada came up with just plain impossible numbers.7

This can only happen if observable chain of custody is missing or delayed. It’s missing when state party officials announce a total without also publishing 100 percent of the precinct results. It’s delayed when election officials claim they won’t release all the parts of the total until days, or weeks, after they announce the total. Of course, because the total is a sum of its parts, you have to know the parts before you can know the whole, so it makes no sense to announce a winner but claim you can’t release precinct results until later.

If you hide the parts and a guy like True says one of them is false, as long as you delay publication of other parts you can still cling to a wrong total by shifting some of the other precinct results around.


Political ethics follow a different script than you and I do in everyday life, partly because we don’t hold politicians accountable as rigorously as we should.8 The duty of party leaders is to deliver a win. If obscuring a portion of the process helps deliver that win, integrity loses.

In regular elections software counts the votes, automatically obscuring counting from the public. But caucuses (usually) don’t use software to count votes at precinct level. The only place left to obscure the process is in the transfer from precinct to state totals. Idealistic ethics get picked off like ticks as political players move up the ladder. Moving vote totals from precinct to state levels transfers vote data from the most idealistic participants (local citizens) to the most ambitious, beholden, and pragmatic players (state political bosses).

Election integrity doesn’t need to depend on trust and confidence in someone else’s ethics.


In 2015, Microsoft announced that it was providing a technology solution for Iowa’s 2016 caucuses, providing both a technology to transmit precinct results and a media center to display them in “real time.”9

That’s a great start but not the whole solution. The Sanders campaign, and probably all the other campaigns, know that and made efforts to address it.

Did Sanders shun Microsoft? Or just set up prudent checks and balances?

Shortly before the caucus, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said that in addition to Microsoft’s technology his campaign had developed their own precinct reporting app. This was reported as “suspicion” of Microsoft, casting the issue in terms of trust rather than focusing on the more essential issues of election transparency and accountability. The Sanders campaign said their parallel method was to check and confirm and make sure precinct results were available timely. MSNBC, however, used the term “suspicious” four times and “conspiracy theory” once in their coverage of the Sanders app.10

Headline: “Sanders camp suspicious of Microsoft’s influence in Iowa Caucus” …”The arrangement has aroused the suspicions of aides to Sanders ” … “During the 2004 presidential election, for instance, there was widespread suspicion on the left about Diebold voting machines.” … “With Sanders supporters already suspicious of meddling from forces they see as hostile to their candidate, including the Democratic Party and corporations, the backup system could help tamp down questions and conspiracy theories.”

MSNBC missed the point and diverted attention away from accountability to trust and confidence. Here’s how MSNBC’s reporting could have been vastly more helpful. Compare:

“The Iowa Democratic Party has always believed in the importance of new election technology, and …  we completely trust the integrity of their staff and the app. — MSNBC reporting, quoting Sam Lau 11

Instead, they could have talked about something like this:

“Everyone can see and check for themselves that votes are counted correctly at the precinct and anyone can compare what they see with what was reported by the state to make sure it matches.”

Or, instead of:

“He has complete confidence in the Iowa Democratic Party, and absolute trust on integrity,” (MSNBC quoting Pete D’Alessandro) 12

They could have said something like this:

“Anyone can videotape the count and take a picture of the results form; anyone can send any of this to their social network using Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, text messages or anything they want, so everyone who wants to compare local results with official results from the state party (or Microsoft) can check and balance to their heart’s content.”

In fact, when Microsoft and the parties say they have developed complex algorithms to detect improbable numbers and impossible scenarios,13 that’s nice but in addition they could do something quite simple: Using everyday technology, precinct officials can take a picture of their signed, witnessed results form and send it along with their typed-in results. This requires no fancy mathematics and can resolve problems  immediately. Which calls into question why 48 hours is needed. According to John McCormick of Bloomberg News,  “The state parties have also put in place a plan to get all the paperwork from the precincts to Des Moines within 48 hours of the caucuses, should a speedy auditing be needed.”14

A “speedy auditing” should always be done, whether the race is tight or not, and there is no reason it can’t be done on election night. Which calls into question the next statement:

“Once the precinct figures are approved by the state party, they’ll be posted online in real time for the public to follow. …  The parties and political observers may have an easier time tracking the caucus result thanks to Microsoft’s technology, but that doesn’t mean we’ll know the Iowa winners on February 1.”15

Why not? With all the technology Microsoft is putting into this, and all the money behind the U.S. presidential race, why can’t we just get it right on election night? Maybe we need Apple iPhones instead of Microsoft apps and algorithms.

In the end, elections and caucuses don’t belong to political parties and candidates. They belong to voters. Technology is widely available to all and should be used that way. Indeed, technology can provide a great boost to public transparency and facilitate “speedy auditing” — if political party chiefs truly want that.


  1. Jennifer Jacobs: Missing precincts: What happened in each county?, Des Moines Register, 01/25/2012,
    Cerro Gordo County: missing Mason City Ward 2 Precinct 3. “‘All my stuff was in order when I sent it in a sealed box with delivery confirmation. When they opened up that box in Des Moines and spread it out on the table, I can’t verify what happened down there.’  County GOP Chairman John Rowe said he personally organized all the paperwork, a 12-inch stack, and mailed it himself.”
    Emmet County: missing Precinct 5 EM-ES according to Emmet County GOP Chairwoman Deb Satern, though state party officials reported missing Estherville Ward 2. “She declined to name the chair for the missing precinct….Satern said she has no idea what the vote count was for this precinct. “All my other packets have the ballots in them, but this one does not.”
    Franklin County: missing precinct: Geneva-Reeve. “When the votes were done, the four chairs called (GOP Chairwoman Karen) Zander with the numbers, and she submitted them via the party’s password-protected website.”  But when she mailed the envelopes containing Form E, the results report, to the state she didn’t check to see whether the form was included.
    Lee County: missing precincts Fort Madison 4A, Fort Madison 4B, Franklin-Cedar-Marion, Washington-Green Bay-Denmark. Two results forms were lost. “I don’t know what happened to them,” said GOP Chairman Don Lucas, and neither do the precinct officials. Two results forms were blank. “I didn’t feel it was ethically right to fill it out and have someone else sign it,” Lucas said.
    Pocahontas County: missing precinct Center-South Roosevelt-North Lincoln. Results form was missing because according to GOP Chairman Michael Ryan, the results form did not get back to him. He declined to name the person responsible.

    – Jennifer Jacobs: Santorum supporters upset that title has asterisk,  Des Moines Register, 01/19/2012,
    Plymouth County: three large vote changes between caucus night and certified totals, with 185, 144, and 129 votes.

    – Alison Gowans : UNI-Dome Caucus Originally Overcounted Santorum’s Vote, Party Leader Says , Cedar Falls, 01/19/2012,
    Black Hawk County: UNI-Dome Caucus Originally Overcounted Santorum’s Vote by nine votes
    – Fayette County Contributes to Caucus Confusion , KCMH News, 01/20/2012,
    Fayette County: More votes than voters – Illyria township reported 54 votes but there were only 5; Oelwein’s third precinct reported 54 votes when it should have been 4, reporting 99 more votes than voters. As for the signed results forms: Four precincts results forms were signed by the wrong person (and the same person).

    – Jennifer Jacobs: Santorum supporters upset that title has asterisk, Des Moines Register, 01/19/2012,
    Typos discovered in 131 precincts for a sum total of 2,140 vote differences
    Precincts with double-digit errors: 51
    Precincts with errors of 20 votes or more: 33
    Precincts with a vote change of 36 votes or more: 20
    Precincts with errors of 50 votes or more: 11

    – Chad Selweski: SELWESKI: Another reason why Iowa should not go first, Daily Tribune, 01/21/2012,
    “Results for some precincts came in on pieces of paper other than the official forms. Many forms had only one signature, or the wrong signature; 18 documents had no signatures at all.
    In past votes, among both Republicans and Democrats, the Iowa outcome was reported as official results – in many cases, these were game-changing events. Yet, many days later it was learned that only 70 or 75 percent of the precinct results were reported. In a tight 1980 race between Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, 165 mostly rural precincts favorable to Reagan were never included in the initial tally. It was later learned that 142 precincts never reported their results or didn’t hold caucuses.”

  2. Jason Clayworth: 2 votes, not 22, to Romney in precinct, county says, Des Moines Register, 01/06/2012,
    Appanoose County: “The issue came to light after Moulton resident Edward True signed an affidavit saying that he helped count the vote at the Garrett Memorial Library in Moulton and that the precinct had two votes for Romney, not 22, as reported online by the state GOP. ..Terri Haub, a Moulton resident who was secretary of the precinct, also confirmed Friday that the count signed in True’s affidavit is accurate. Haub, who works at the Elmer Wood Co. in Moulton, said she checked the numbers twice. .. “We stand by the figures that were presented by the Moulton precinct caucus,” said Lyle Brinegar, chairman of the Appanoose County GOP… State GOP chairman Strawn said, “Out of respect to the candidates involved, party officials will not respond to every rumor, innuendo or allegation.”
  3.   Carol E. Lee, Brody Mullins and Kristina Peterson: Iowa Caucus Totals May Be Shifting., Wall Street Journal, 01/13/2012,
    “An Iowa GOP spokeswoman said she could not comment until the count was complete.”
    Note: However, the Iowa GOP did comment, in the most powerful way, by announcing that Mitt Romney had won the caucus.
  4.   Jennifer Jacobs: Did Romney win Iowa’s caucuses? Definitive answer may never come, Des Moines Register, 01/17/2012,
    “It’s possible that this year’s certified results will be incomplete, and that Iowans may never know the full outcome.”
  5. Jennifer Jacobs: Santorum supporters upset that title has asterisk, Des Moines Register, 01/19/2012,
  6. Ethan Andrews: Where’s Waldo? Waldo County mostly missing from official Maine GOP results, Village Soup – Waldo, 02/13/2012,
    Maine: All but one of 18 Waldo communities were given zeros below the name of each candidate, as though no one had voted. “According to Mike Quatrano, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, and the person who issued the press release, the omission of the Waldo County votes was not a typo. … But according to Raymond St. Onge, who organized the multi-town Waldo County gathering, he submitted results of the Feb. 4 caucuses to the party immediately after the event, which was held a week before the deadline. “They had the numbers to count,” said St. Onge, referring to state party officials. “Why they didn’t include them, I don’t know the answer to that.” According to figures supplied by St. Onge, Ron Paul came out the winner among the 18 towns that gathered on Feb. 4 with 43 votes, followed by Rick Santorum with 41.  The Maine Republican Party drew criticism over the weekend for declaring Mitt Romney the statewide winner without results from Washington County (which also went for Ron Paul) and the Waldo County towns.
    Note: In addition, results released by the Maine Republican Party did not add up to their own self.
  7. Spencer Lubitz: Caucus chaos continues: Clark County GOP has more ballots than voters, KTNV News, 02/05/2012,
    Nevada: Clark County has more GOP ballots than voters, throwing the caucus process into disarray. In a statement, Michael Chamberlain, the communication director for the Clark County GOP addressed the concerns that there were more ballots than voters.  “I don’t know how that could’ve happened and I am not going to speculate on why that might be.”
  8. Steps to improve how we hold public officials accountable include:
    1. Defining accountability more broadly. Accountability isn’t just adhering to rules and laws. Include also expectations of ethical accountability and moral responsibility.
    2. There are many types of consequences which can increase accountability. Among these:
    – Inquiries, investigations
    – Sanctions
    – Suspension
    – Resignation
    – Impeachment
    – Recall elections
    – Prosecution
    – Vote of no confidence
    – Demand for account-giving or explanatory report
    – Media publicity
    Watchdog groups can help by demanding appropriate consequences.
  9. Dan’l Lewin: Microsoft technology to usher in new era for 2016 Iowa caucuses,, 06/05/2015,
    – Microsoft: Press Release: Microsoft to Sponsor 2016 Iowa Caucus Media Center , Iowa Media Center, 08/19/2015,
  10. Alex Seitz-Wald: Sanders camp suspicious of Microsoft’s influence in Iowa Caucus, MSNBC, 1/28/2016,
  11. Alex Seitz-Wald: Sanders camp suspicious of Microsoft’s influence in Iowa Caucus, MSNBC, 1/28/2016,
  12. Alex Seitz-Wald: Sanders camp suspicious of Microsoft’s influence in Iowa Caucus, MSNBC, 1/28/2016,
  13. Russell Berman: The Iowa Caucus Gets an Upgrade, The Atlantic, 12/20/2015,
    “The app is designed so it can’t accept results that don’t add up, and the parties have each developed algorithms to catch suspicious tallies. “They’ll flag results that are wildly off”
    The app will allow “the media, the campaigns, and anyone else to see tallies posted in real time and to drill down to the precinct level for specific results.”
  14. John McCormick: Microsoft Puts Name on Line With Iowa Caucuses Tabulation , Bloomberg News, 01/27/2016,
    “the state parties have also put in place a plan to get all the paperwork from the precincts to Des Moines within 48 hours of the caucuses, should a speedy auditing be needed in the case of another exceptionally close race.”
  15. Emily Cadei: Iowa Caucuses Go High-Tech, Newsweek, 01/08/2016,
    “Once the precinct figures are approved by the state party, they’ll be posted online in real time for the public to follow. … The parties and political observers may have an easier time tracking the caucus result thanks to Microsoft’s technology, but that doesn’t mean we’ll know the Iowa winners on February 1.”



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