Things are heating up in Iowa, two days after the Democrat caucuses, as Bernie Sanders questions the results, and refuses to concede a razor-thin victory to Hillary Clinton.
“As I understand it there were some precincts where delegates were won with flip of the coin. We want to take a look at it,” Sanders said to reporters in New Hampshire on Tuesday, as quoted by CBS News. “I was on a plane last night, so we haven’t had time to look at it. But I do think it’s unfortunate that – I don’t want to misspeak here – may be the case some delegates decided on flip of the coin.”
ABC News has a somewhat more aggressive statement from Sanders along the same lines: “We want to look at some of the numbers. As I understand it, there were some precincts where actually delegates were won with a flip of a coin actually… Not the best way to do democracy.”
As a matter of fact, it has been reported that six delegates were decided with coin tosses, and Clinton somehow won all six, despite massive odds against such a feat.
Later reporting on Tuesday evening from the Des Moines Register led them to conclude the total number of coin flips (and similar games of chance) was “unknown.”
The paper revealed it was keeping track of coin flips by watching social media reports and interviewing caucus participants, then attempting to confirm the reports with the state Democrat Party. The Register thought it might have found a seventh coin flip of unknown outcome, but was not certain if this was a duplicate of a previous report.
One former Democrat Party official told the paper he thought there were more coin tosses than have been reported thus far – although still claiming they were a “rare occurrence” – and he thought Sanders actually won most of them.
The results are measured in “delegate equivalents,” with the count shifting a bit as late results were tabulated, but CBS puts the final result as 700.59 for Clinton, 696.82 for Sanders. Earlier totals had the two candidates separated by the equivalent of a single delegate, which would mean that microscopic but narrative-shaping “victory” was literally decided by the flip of a single coin.
If this all sounds confusing, the short version is that the Iowa Democratic caucus was a circus of ineptitude, bad planning, ambiguous rules, and deliberate obfuscation of the results. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the state party cannot promptly release the exact number of delegates decided by random chance, clarify the rules governing such games, or release the raw vote totals, as the Sanders campaign is demanding.
It’s even more absurd when considering the much-ballyhooed involvement of tech giant Microsoft, which partnered with both the Republican and Democrat parties to provide computer systems for tabulating the results. The software was supposedly in development for over a year. Before the caucus was held, some Sanders aides “raised concerns about Microsoft employees donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Clinton over the years,” as The Verge put it.
In the end, we got pandemonium in the caucus halls, five percent of the vote missing through most of the following morning, and a hapless volunteer from one precinct frantically trying to figure out how he could submit his results. According to the Des Moines Register, some of those coin tosses were necessary because a sizable number of caucus participants “apparently disappeared from the proceedings” before the process was completed.
It’s almost enough to make you wonder if giving Democrats control over every aspect of American life is a good idea.
The mantra about coin tosses being “rare” grows louder today, even as the number of such flips allegedly occurring during this particular Democrat caucus gets higher. In a fact sheet published a month before the caucus was held, the Huffington Post described the use of coin tosses to select delegates as “extremely rare,” and said the rules depended on “the size of the county and the preferences of the group.”
The rules for using random chance to break ties in the Democrat caucuses remain murky, as is their history of relying on such methods. Former Iowa Democrat Party executive director Norm Sterzenbach told the Des Moines Register that coin tosses “occurred an unknown number of times in 2008, when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.”
Back in 2008, the New York Times mentioned coin flipping as one of the differences between the Republican and Democrat systems in Iowa:
While the Republican caucuses are fairly simple — voters can leave shortly after they declare their preferences — Democratic caucuses can require more time and multiple candidate preferences from participants. They do not conform to the one-person, one-vote rule, because votes are weighted according to a precinct’s past level of participation. Ties can be settled by coin toss or picking names out of a hat.
Wired suggests that previous uses of the coin toss were less controversial because cell phones with cameras were less prevalent, whereas today’s caucus-goers can videotape the spectacle of the flipped coin and upload it to social media immediately.
The 2008 margin of victory wasn’t nearly as tight as 2016’s Clinton-Sanders race, with Barack Obama taking 37 percent, while Clinton and John Edwards were essentially tied with 28 percent each. There probably wouldn’t have been as many deadlocked caucuses to break under those circumstances, or as much controversy about the use of random chance to settle them.
If the Sanders campaign cannot establish that the coin tosses somehow violated arcane Party rules, or challenge the honesty of the games, their remaining avenue for salvaging a narrative victory in Iowa involves demanding the raw vote totals, in hopes of proving Sanders won the actual vote.
This is quite possible, as Sanders voters could have been concentrated in certain precincts – a possibility discussed by many analysts beforehand, with the Des Moines Register bluntly describing the Sanders vote as “islands of college-town support.”
Sanders could be angling for more than a rhetorical victory here, as the Register reports his campaign staff “believes there may be discrepancies between the paper vote tallies at the precinct level and numbers that were reported to the state party.”
There has also been some buzz around a video posted by C-SPAN, which some believe show a caucus incorrectly reporting a win for Clinton while Sanders supporters begged for a recount.
The Washington Post quoted Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver saying of the popular vote, “As an empirical matter, we’re not likely to ever know what the actual result was,” as he cited such complications as “the narrow margin, the ‘arcane’ rules of the caucuses, the delayed reporting of some precincts, and the technology used to report the results.”
Those are an awful lot of “complications” for an Information Age vote in a state that insists on holding the crucial first-in-the-nation nominating contest, shaping the outcome of the entire presidential race.