- The Iowa caucuses devolved into chaos on Monday after a systemwide meltdown prevented results from being delivered.
- The debacle prompted doubt over how the state runs its caucuses, and why the process is so confusing.
- Most states use a primary system, but several use caucuses, which are quite different.
- It’s unclear whether other caucusing states will run into issues like Iowa did.
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The chaos marked a grim start to primary season. The Iowa caucuses are the first major nominating contest of the presidential primaries, and cap off roughly a year of campaigning for the 11 Democratic candidates still in the race.
The delayed results have also prompted confusion over how Iowa conducts its caucuses, why the process is so complicated, and what the difference is between the Iowa caucuses and the more traditional primaries most states partake in.
In the months leading up to the official start of the 2020 race, Democratic presidential candidates had to prepare for two different types of scenarios when courting voters.
- Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Primary elections are simple: voters show up to their polling place, whether it is a school, library, or elsewhere, and check the box for the candidate of their choice.
But not all primaries are the same. Some are “open” elections, meaning any voter can show up and pick a candidate from any party. Even if you vote Republican, you can still weigh in on the field of Democratic candidates when it’s your state’s turn for a primary.
But others are “closed” primary elections, meaning that you can only cast a ballot in the primary of the party for which you are registered. For example, if you are a registered Republican, you might only be able to check a box next to Trump’s name – or you could opt for his fellow Republican opponents Bill Weld or Joe Walsh, if they’re on your state’s primary ballots.
Iowa is not the only state that conducts caucuses instead of primaries
Caucuses are different from primaries for a number of reasons. You do not simply show up, check a box, and leave with an “I voted” sticker.
The process can take hours, as voters gather at a venue to hear out supporters of various candidates, debate issues, and ultimately come to a conclusion about which person will make the best presidential nominee. Voters select delegates who will represent them at the party’s annual convention in the summer.
When voters arrive at the venue, which can be anywhere from a high school gymnasium to a restaurant, supporters of certain candidates break off into groups, including groups for undecided voters. Then voters, who are typically activists and very politically engaged, will plead their case to everyone about why their preferred candidate is the best choice.
With a large field of candidates and a diverse spectrum of ideology in the Democratic race, this could take all night. On Monday night’s Iowa caucuses, the process stretched into the next day due to the errors in reporting the results. By Tuesday afternoon, Iowa’s results still hadn’t been released.
Most caucuses have a threshold to earn delegates, meaning that a candidate might need 15% or more of the votes to be awarded delegates. For instance, Ted Cruz earned eight delegates in the 2017 Iowa caucuses, while Donald Trump and Marco Rubio each earned seven, respectively.
Iowa is the most famous, but five states and three US territories conduct caucuses in lieu of a primary election. Alaska, Kansas, Hawaii, Maine, and Washington used to conduct caucuses, but recently switched to primaries.
Caucuses also vary by party. As an example, Kentucky has a Democratic primary but Republican caucuses. In addition, several states have switched to primaries for 2020, like Minnesota and Colorado.
The states with caucuses are:
- North Dakota
- Kentucky (Republican only)
The US territories conducting caucuses are:
- American Samoa
- The US Virgin Islands
The Nevada Democratic Party said in a statement on Tuesday that it wouldn’t be using the app that Iowa did to avoid similar issues. A spokesman for the North Dakota Democratic Party told Business Insider’s Connor Perrett that they had no plans to use the app.
Most states used to caucus
Most states used caucuses until the 1970s. The Democratic Party created the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which reformed the nomination process after what was largely viewed as a political catastrophe in the 1968 presidential election, when Hubert Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon.
“Pressure from party activists at the convention resulted in the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which proceeded to rewrite the party’s roles between 1969 and 1970,” wrote Scott Piroth in a journal for the University of Vermont. “The Commission mandated that all national convention delegates had to be chosen in forums that were open to all party members and conducted within the calendar year of the election. States holding primaries had to place the names of qualified candidates on the ballot, and the distribution of convention delegates would be proportional, in order to reflect the results of such primaries.”
Since the reforms, caucuses have dwindled and disappeared over the past several decades. But in a large field of candidates, the caucuses could end up being a major strategic advantage for Democrats looking to make gains without a lot of name recognition – that is, if there are no more issues delivering results.
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