Latest report on Iowa Caucus protections

Published: Mon 17 Dec 2007 12:56 AM
Latest report on Iowa Caucus protections
By Bev Harris, Blackboxvoting.Org
Ever wonder how the heck a caucus works, whether they are secure from fraud, and if there's anything new to help citizens oversee presidential caucuses? Black Box Voting has identified several areas of concern, reports some good news, and identifies one remaining concern which can be solved BEFORE Jan. 3!
Coming Jan. 3, 2007: The famous Iowa caucuses. Traditionally considered a critical sign of candidate viability, results in Iowa can make or break candidate funding and public image. What problems can affect caucuses?
Following an Iowa Republican Party straw poll in August, citizens expressed anguish that the votes were counted on Diebold/Premier optical scan voting machines. Another Republican straw poll, in Pinellas County Florida, was afflicted with participants reporting touch-screen voting machines flipping votes from one candidate to another.
In a San Mateo County, Calif. Democratic Party straw poll, votes were counted in public but then accumulated out of public view on a laptop, a procedural flaw that organizers say will be corrected. (It doesn't matter if the initial counting is done in public, if results are summed up in private without releasing the details.)
In Iowa, neither party has been releasing the precinct results that provide the underlying verification for the totals they announce -- a procedure so top-heavy it should come with a laugh track. Black Box Voting and many Iowa citizens have been expressing concern, and urging the release of the data for the 1,900 precincts to back up the announced total.
While it's true that each precinct vote result assigns delegates according to the vote, and those delegates go to a county convention to cast votes (though this is nonbinding), in fact the delegate votes never match the original caucus results, because the county convention is held months after the caucus, and in 2008 will take place after Super Duper Tuesday. Many candidates drop out by the time the convention rolls around, so votes are readjusted.
Caucuses are not subject to freedom of information through public records, because technically the parties are private corporations and do not have to release their documents. Therefore, the caucuses have some built-in impediments to transparency.
Black Box Voting has been raising questions and seeking answers. We've been mailing letters to our Iowa constituents, blogging, and distributing questions and concerns through the voting rights circuitry.
Here's what we've learned so far, revealing some good news and citizen action still needed to prod one of the parties into publicly accounting for its results.
Because caucus procedures for each party differ, will report on them separately.
It's official:
Democratic Party procedures - Haven't and won't use any voting machines in the caucuses.
Republican Party procedures - They used voting machines in the Republican straw poll in August, but will not use the machines in the January caucus.
Both parties say they will count the votes in public at the precincts.
Dem procedures: Stand in a clump, count the warm bodies. Public count. Dem procedures are publicly posted on sec. state web site.
Rep Procedures: Write name on piece of paper, hand count it. Rep procedures are not posted yet.
I spoke with Chad Olsen, one of the people with the Iowa Republican Party handling the caucuses. According to Olsen, the procedure will be for each participant to write the name on a piece of paper. Those pieces of paper will be collected and will be counted by the precinct caucus officials in front of representatives for the candidates and an observer or observers.
Devil is in the details on that, chain of custody can go bonkers. It did in the Texas Republican straw poll recently. Still, that's better than voting machines. Done right, it's a public count. Would like to get the procedures, in writing.
Dem Party procedures: I have a definite confirm, in writing, from the spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party that they will release the precinct results. They have never done this before. What they will be doing in 2008 carves out new procedures for improved transparency and citizen oversight. Dem Party spokesman Chris Allen said to watch for a press release, hopefully early next week.
Republican Party procedures: Not yet, opened the door, provided a road map to getting precinct results released promptly on state web site. At this time, however, there are no plans to do so.
Regarding releasing the underlying precinct figures when they announce the winner, Olsen said it might be available by the counties but maybe not right away, maybe a day later.
Iowa has 99 counties, with widely varying ability to handle this on their web sites. I encouraged him to post the results all in one place, and promptly, on the state party web site.
He said the media hasn't had this as a top priority. I explained that the terrain in 2008 is very different than in the caucus period in 2004. There are many different election integrity groups and many citizen oversight groups now, and the needs of citizens doing oversight are not quite the same as those of the media.
I asked him if they had made a decision NOT to post the results. (They never have before). He said they haven't made a decision NOT to. So I asked him if they would consider posting them, even if just as a spreadsheet or simple pdf list of results. He said no one has really asked for it. I said, if people ask for it, might you do it?
He said, if enough people ask for it they might do it.
When people participate in a caucus, they should be able to see the votes counted in public, and then should be able to promptly go visit a web site to see that the result they observed is the same as the precinct number contained in the total.
For the first time, Democratic Party caucus participants will be able to check that the state total uses their accurate precinct details. Maybe -- if enough people ask for it -- Republican Party caucus participants will be able to have the same transparency.
Methinks enough people should be marshalled to ask for it.
Feel free to pass this along...
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