Presidential Race
1:34 pm
Mon March 5, 2012

Caucus Confusion: A Recurring Headache For GOP

For the first time, Idaho Republicans are holding presidential preference caucuses on Tuesday. Jonathan Parker, the state party's executive director, is excited about the chance to hold party-building exercises on such a broad scale.

"For the first time, maybe ever, Idaho is relevant in the nominating process," he says.

But as much as he relishes the attention — Mitt Romney held a rally in Idaho Falls last Thursday — Parker worries that the state GOP could generate the wrong kind of publicity.

That is, if the Idaho caucuses appear as screwed up as those in several other states this year.

"Caucus voting looks like the Wild West of voting," says Cathy Cox, a former Democratic secretary of state in Georgia. "Anything goes — there seem to be no protocols, no process, no safeguards."

And this year that confusion could grow: According to the website FrontloadingHQ, 13 states are holding Republican caucuses — up from nine in 2000 and 11 in 2008. Besides Idaho, Alaska and North Dakota hold caucuses on Super Tuesday.

Results On Hold

Problems have already manifested themselves in several ways. In the GOP race's first contest in Iowa, results from more than 100 caucuses were incorrectly counted, meaning an election night eight-vote win for Romney was later retabulated as a 34-vote victory for Rick Santorum. That led to the resignation of the state GOP chairman.

The vote counting after caucuses in Nevada stretched out over a couple of days, with accusations of fraud flying as some recounts took place behind closed doors. In Maine, Romney was declared the statewide winner days before all counties had completed voting.

"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.

Gap Between Voting And Results

Things may prove especially confusing in Missouri. Republicans there, who already held a non-binding presidential primary last month, will hold caucuses on March 17.

But not all the caucuses. St. Louis County Republicans will hold their 28 caucus meetings a week later, so as not to overlap with Saint Patrick's Day.

No delegates will be awarded once the count is final, anyway. The state party is going to wait until a group of meetings in April to sort out which candidate has won which delegates.

Delegate selection, in turn, will be based on different rules laid out by each of the 142 local caucuses. Those caucuses will make their own choices about how to choose delegates (voting for individuals or for slates put up by the presidential campaigns) and whether those delegates must remain pledged to candidates or can act as free agents at the GOP national convention.

Such delays can make the relationship between voting and outcome seem tenuous and undermine confidence, says John Stremlau, an international elections observer with the Carter Center.

"What's real and what's not is hard to decide, in terms of whether or not citizens are being heard," he says. "That's what we worry about overseas."

Generally Better Since Florida

Cox, the former Georgia official, says it's "ridiculous" in the age of information technology that voters can't know results within hours, or at least overnight.

"If you can't produce pretty instantaneous results, people are going to lose confidence in the results and you're going to open up the floodgates to opportunities for fraud," she says.

Election experts agree that vote counting has generally gotten quicker and more accurate since the disputed presidential results in Florida in 2000. Following that controversy, the federal government devoted billions of dollars to help states modernize their voting machinery and improve their procedures.

"States have much clearer laws about which votes are supposed to count and which ones are not," says David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That can help clear up complications over absentee voting and provisional ballots.

But the reality is that voting in the United States is a highly decentralized process. Each state has its own rules, which are then generally implemented separately by individual counties. "You're bound to get differences in the way typical elections are held," Kimball says.

State and county election officials continue to suffer embarrassing moments — as when New York City found nearly 200,000 uncounted votes a month after the 2010 general election, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg called "a royal screwup."

Things could get worse, as the federal largesse helping to underwrite election procedures has mostly run out. The federal law "provided a very substantial amount of money into our election process, but that money in most states has already been allocated, or it's gone," says Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

More Messed Up

A study released last month by the Pew Center on the States found that, nationwide, voter rolls contained the names of 1.8 million dead people and 24 million people who were registered improperly.

But however much progress remains for states and counties in terms of managing general and primary elections, caucuses remain far behind. Presidential caucuses are run by state parties — not government officials.

They do not have professional staff in place and only get the chance to practice and train once every four years. Perhaps most troubling, says elections expert Lawrence Norden, the parties seem willing and able to make up new rules as they go along.

Of course, that can happen in primaries, too: Last week, a day after Michigan's primary, party officials revised their method for allocating the state's at-large delegates, awarding two statewide delegates to Mitt Romney and zero to Rick Santorum, rather than the 50-50 split earlier rules had called for.

Caucuses are not always held on the same day and parties regularly change their minds about the hours and dates on which they'll be held — or even, as in Maine, when they might stop counting.

"The standards you have in most elections — machines, printouts, the redundancies of checking precinct vs. county vs. state totals — those kind of rigorous standards don't exist, at least to the level that they should, in caucuses," says Norden, deputy director of a democracy program at New York University law school.

Learning From Mistakes

Parker, the GOP executive director in Idaho, says his party tried to copy the best procedures from other states — and sought ways to avoid the worst mistakes.

To get its caucus system underway, party officials spent months holding conference calls trying to game out "what ifs." They've come up with a long list of boring but important procedural safeguards, including having each caucus result phoned in to state headquarters by county chairs who have been given unique passwords and who have to follow up by reporting counts through email or text.

In direct response to problems seen elsewhere this year, the Idaho GOP is slowing down its vote reporting procedures. It won't release results publicly until every county is heard from.

"With the Iowa issue and questions about the Maine caucus, that's the reason we decided not to release results until all 44 counties have come in," Parker says. "As a state party, we're not going to jump the gun and take any chances."

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