When it comes to running elections and counting votes, states and counties have come a long way over the past dozen years. Nothing demonstrates their progress better than watching other people try to do the same job.
During the Republican presidential primary campaign this year, several states were embarrassed by snafus with their caucuses, which are run by political parties rather than by public officials.
In Iowa, an eight-vote election-night win for Mitt Romney was later converted into a 34-vote victory for Rick Santorum, with party officials admitting that they didn’t, in fact, know the actual number. (The state party chair resigned.) Counting was slow enough in Nevada to raise doubts during the delay, while in Maine, the GOP decided to declare Romney the statewide winner before some counties had even held their caucuses.
“It’s been stunning to watch,” says Cathy Cox, a former Georgia secretary of state. “Caucus voting looks like the Wild West of voting.”
Since faulty counts cast a shadow over the 2000 presidential election, states have invested billions in new machines and procedures that have made vote counts more accurate. Parties don’t offer the same level of protection. “They’re not voting on machines and they don’t have the procedures that some states have put in place,” says Lawrence Norden, an expert on voting at New York University’s law school.
Caucus results have appeared so arbitrary that Kevin Raye, the president of the Maine Senate, wants to eliminate caucuses altogether. Holding a state-run primary would encourage broader participation, he says, while ensuring that results are not as “controversial” as those from caucuses have been.
In some states where caucuses were held for the first time this year, like Idaho and Hawaii, party officials found them useful exercises for building up their membership and volunteer lists. They were also careful to put in safeguards to ensure that their counts were reliable.
But the problem with caucuses in general is that parties can change the rules as they go. And it turns out that running elections only once every four years is a good way to forget and slip up. “It’s mind-boggling to me, as a former election official, that you could have blocs of votes that don’t get counted or you don’t think about until the next day,” Cox says.