I hope I may be forgiven for having had more than a few belly laughs from the incompetence of the way that the Democratic caucuses for Iowa were handled this year. By and large, the Iowa caucus has tended to provide a low-cost way for a large field of claimants for a nomination to compete in kissing babies and talking up the virtues of corn across a state for months in the hope that a win or a good showing will allow them to springboard their campaigns to success in winning a nomination. It offers a change for politicians to hone their skills at speaking and appealing to voters without having to break the bank in doing so before having to raise many millions of dollars to compete in advertising campaigns across multiple states as well as the massive expenditure of a nationwide campaign. This sort of gradual easing into a campaign is by no means new, as caucuses were once (until 1824) the means by which Congressmen in smoke-filled rooms would chat with each other about which member of the corrupt political elite would receive the nomination next. This worked fine for the Democrats until they chose a Southern politician whose stroke made him a clear liability and led a variety of others to dismiss the caucus system as corrupt.
There is some appeal in a caucus though. If you’re interested enough to spend hours of a winter evening in some middle school gymnasium with a few dozen of one’s neighbors counting up who has the most votes and then trying to win over those people who have to pick new candidates to support in a ranked choice playoff competition through discussions of why one of the candidates left is the best alternative to the candidate those people originally supported, it can be quite fun to see persuasion in practice. That isn’t to say that the voters involved in the process are necessarily high-information voters, but all the same there is a certain commitment involved to spending hours standing around and counting heads round after round until someone ends up winning, sometimes with a (hopefully not rigged) coin toss. Theoretically speaking, this is not a hard thing to count. The numbers aren’t very high, the process is a relaxed one that already takes a bit of time, and the mathematics involved is nothing that an earnest and modestly competent child should be incapable of doing accurately.
And yet here we are, with the credibility of the process ruined by a general mood of suspicion and the complete inability of election process to work as they are designed. In theory, elections are simple. People make decisions and the votes are counted and when they are done everyone goes home and then awaits the next chance to do it again. Sometimes people change their opinion and reverse course, or at other times people realize that certain things are more important to them than what they had previously thought, or the way they have felt about the people in authority has changed and so on and so forth. What is simple in theory is not very simple, though, in practice, because some people are motivated not to count votes but to control outcomes, and that requires the addition of complexity so that the count can be corrupted to produce the desired outcome of various elites. As someone who reads a fair amount about the lack of trust that people have in the voting process, there are a great many ways where what should be a simple and straightforward process is undermined, whether that is through the manipulation of low-information voters, tampering with votes made, adding fraudulent votes that were not really cast, and so on and so forth. The addition of technology and the reduction of any sort of physical trace evidence that can counteract this process only makes such problems worse, even if technology is touted as a fix for the well-understood problems of ballot fraud.
It is not complicated to figure out why there are fraudulent elections. Elections have consequences, and people who desire ends are willing to engage in a lot of nefarious means in order to achieve those ends. The goal, of course, is to achieve the desired end without removing faith in the system that led to the desired end. The knowledge that people will not ascribe legitimacy to a fraudulent and corrupt process has tended to make efforts to corrupt votes more secretive over time since outright admitting that one has stolen elections tends to bring with it at least the potential of jail time and embarrassment in these civilized times. Of course, that puts a great many votes under the shadow of illegitimacy, since those who lose elections can point to the lack of legitimacy about many election technologies as an excuse for their failure to win rather than engaging in the soul searching that comes when one owns a loss and takes it to heart and uses it to reflect on how one could have better connected with voters. But in our age of blame and deflection, the time for reflection seems to have gone by the wayside with so much else.