July 16, 2024

Who won the Iowa primary – and does it matter from a technical perspective?

As Americans know, the 2012 presidential season began “officially” with the Iowa caucuses on January 3. I say “officially”, because caucuses are a strange beast that are a creation of political parties, and not government.

Regardless, the Republican results were interesting – out of about 125,000 votes cast, Mitt Romney led by eight votes over Rick Santorum, with other contenders far behind. The “official” results released today show Santorum ahead by 34 votes.

However, it’s not so simple as that.

First, there’s the matter of paper ballots. The good news is that Iowa caucuses, unlike primaries and general elections in some states, are recorded on paper. So in a case like this, there’s paper to turn to, unlike all-electronic systems where the results rely on correct software.

Second, there’s the matter of proper chain of custody. In releasing the updated results, it appears that some of the records from the caucuses cannot be located. It doesn’t matter whether the records are paper or electronic – if the chain of custody is weak (or non-existent!), then the results are at best suspect.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, “the early part of the Presidential Primary series is the only case in American politics that I know of where the preliminary election results may be actually more important than the final certified results.” [Thanks to David Jefferson for this observation.] While this is not a technical issue, it points out that our technical solutions for voting systems must recognize the reality that timely accurate results are important – timely results that are wrong aren’t helpful, and slow results that are right will be ignored.

Finally, it’s critical to realize that caucuses, like primaries in some states, are run by the parties, and not by the election professionals. Perhaps if the caucuses were run by the pros, some of these problems might not have happened.