I'm a little slow out of the starting gate with this one, but it seems that one of the major criticisms of the Iowa Democratic caucuses -- that the actual vote totals are kept secret -- has quietly disappeared into the cornfields. The purpose of this post is to bring attention to that change, and raise the questions of how and why it came about. [Update 1/14/08, 8 am: In fact, it seems that this problem has not yet been addressed. See update at the end. Can one be slow out of the starting gate and jump the gun??]
Let me first define three terms I'll need to talk about this topic clearly:
RAW VOTE The number of caucusgoers who cast a vote for each candidate at the beginning of the caucus (in the first round of voting).
REALIGNED VOTE The number of caucusgoers who cast a vote for each candidate at the end of the caucus (after eliminating non-viable candidates, and when all is said and done).
DELEGATE COUNT The number of delegates to the state convention each candidate has earned at the end of caucus night.
Previously, the Iowa Democratic Party released only the last of these three numbers to the media. So, if you look at the CNN caucus results page for 2004, you'll see that Kerry won 1,128 State Delegates, or 38%, compared to Edwards's 957, or 32%. There's a note attached to those figures, reading
"Instead of releasing caucus vote totals, the Iowa Democratic Party releases a total indicating the number of delegates to the state convention each candidate will receive."
Why would that matter? Well, since the number of delegates per precinct is not determined by population (but by a formula involving turnout in the last two elections), it means that a candidate could, in principle, come in first in the delegate count without getting the most realigned votes. You could basically win the caucuses but lose the popular vote... and no one would ever know.
The Iowa Democratic Party has been criticized harshly for this lack of transparency. For instance, Saletan and Schiller wrote in Slate, under the header "Why you'll never know who won Iowa":
On caucus night, the Iowa Democratic Party will release the delegate count. Here's when the party will release the raw vote count and the realigned vote count: Never. The party won't compile or even record them, except as a temporary step in most precincts so that the caucus chair can determine how many delegates each candidate gets. The party doesn't want raw votes compiled and released, because it wants the caucuses to be a collaborative activity [...] but if you want to know how many voters stood up for John Edwards, you're out of luck.
That was four years ago. Just four weeks ago, the same complaint was filed by Cranberg, Strentz and Roberts in the NY Times op-ed "Iowa's Undemocratic Caucuses":
The percentage broadcast on the networks and reported in the newspapers is the candidate’s share of the 2,500 delegates the party apportions across Iowa’s 99 counties, based on Democratic voter turnout in each of the 1,784 precincts in the two most recent general elections. So, the turnout for a candidate in a precinct caucus could be huge, yet the candidate’s share of the delegate pie could be quite small — if that precinct had low voter turnout in 2004 and 2006.
The authors seem, to me, to confound the raw vote and the realigned vote in their piece, but as I read it they are saying that neither the raw nor the realigned vote is released -- only the delegate count (you might want to click the link to see if you read it the same way).
So I was all set to get royally cheesed about this lack of transparency, and Iowa's gall in insisting it maintain its first-in-the-nation status while the state Democratic party wouldn't even open its books to ensure the kind of fair vote accounting that Democrats have been campaigning for nationwide. And just as I fired up my snarkblaster to smother those poor Iowans in a deluge of withering blog-posting, I discovered a curious thing:
The 2008 vote totals are online.
That link is to an Excel file published by the Gazette on one of their caucus coverage web pages (it's the first link on that page). Admittedly, it contains only the realigned vote, not the raw vote (which would have been nice to see), but the numbers add to 250,005, so it seems they would have to be an actual head-count, not just delegate numbers. The percentages are the same as the ones reported that night, so it would seem the media quietly (and perhaps without even being aware of it) switched from reporting the Iowa delegate count in previous years to reporting the realigned vote count this year.
[Update 1/14/08, 8 am, continued: Caucus turnout was about 240,000. There are 2,500 state delegates. It appears that the Gazette may have followed the Associated Press in simpy multiplying state delegates by 100 (to eliminate fractions, I guess) which coincidentally came out pretty close to real turnout. Bottom line is, we still only know the delegate counts, not the popular vote. And you can bottle up the next paragraph and save it -- I hope -- for 2012.]
If that's the case, I want to commend Iowa Democrats on a well-deserved move toward open election reporting. I also want to suggest that they should have gotten more recognition for this move -- particularly by those who have criticized them in the past -- than they did.
But most importantly, I'd like to know how and why this change occurred, especially since it happened so quietly (to me, anyway). When did it happen? Who pushed for it? Why this year?
I've written to two of the NYT op-ed authors asking if they know what happened, and they have not yet replied (in fairness, I wrote under this pseudonym and from a yahoo address, so I could have easily been spam-filtered or otherwise screened out as a crank). This weekend, I wrote to the Gazette and the Iowa Democratic Party asking the same questions. I'll let you know if I hear anything... and, if anyone out there knows more, please post it in the comments.