We’re bearing down toward February when Democrats will actually get to put their pen to paper and begin voting to support the candidate of their preference for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Actual primary votes are pretty straightforward since they’re similar to visiting your local polling station and casting a vote on paper, electronically, or pulling the lever, in some cases. Caucuses, however, are a completely different animal where rules are set by state parties and the process can sometimes be convoluted and messy.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party has instituted some changes to their Iowa Caucuses which could create some unpredictability and added anxiety on caucus night.

Unlike prior years, when the party has declined to release actual raw vote totals, the rules have been changed for 2020 to release vote totals in addition to the number of delegates awarded to each candidate, as the Associated Press reports:

New rules that will be implemented for the Feb. 3 contest could give presidential candidates an unprecedented opportunity to spin the results. In previous years, the Iowa Democratic Party reported just one number: the number of state delegates won by each candidate. For the first time, the party will this year report two other numbers — who had the most votes at the beginning and at the end of the night.

The additional data is a nod to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, who argue the previous rules essentially robbed him of victory in his 2016 race against Hillary Clinton. That contest ended in a narrow delegate victory for Clinton in Iowa.

Party officials in Iowa and at the national level argue the new process will enhance transparency. But as the caucuses approach in less than three weeks, there’s a growing sense that the new information will breed confusion by giving multiple candidates the chance to claim victory.

It seems almost unheard of to prevent the transparent release of raw voting data nowadays. With so much the line, voters must be able to trust the process and have the ability to audit the results to keep the entire system honest.

Nevada to follow Iowa with vote totals

The New Hampshire primary on February 11 is straightforward and vote totals are released by a state agency that controls and orchestrates the primary. The next meaningful caucus state on the calendar is Nevada, which votes on February 22. The same AP report notes that Nevada will follow suit with Iowa and also release raw vote totals, something that hasn’t been done in the past:

What’s happening in Iowa will also play out in other states that hold caucuses, including in Nevada on Feb. 22. Three numbers will be reported: the first round of votes, the final vote total after low polling candidates are eliminated and what are called state delegate equivalents. They represent the number of delegates each candidate will have at the party’s state convention in June. That, in turn, determines how many national convention delegates each candidate receives.

Caucuses are unique in that the voting which takes place is actually voting to elect delegates at the precinct level which will then represent the precinct at a county level convention. From the county convention, delegates are then voted on to represent the county at the state convention. At the state convention, delegates are voted on to represent the actual delegate send to the Democratic National Convention this summer. Delegates vote at all these levels based on the candidate which they are bound which were determined by the precinct caucus results.

Primaries, on the other hand, simply award pledged voting delegates based on the result of the primary vote. It’s a different way of doing things, and caucuses simply have several other layers of rules in between caucus voters and the actual delegates which end up representing the votes at the national convention for a candidate.

Iowa caucus chaos?

Due to the way the Iowa Democratic caucus process works, requiring a candidate to receive at least 15 percent support in a precinct to be considered viable, and the option for second-choice voting if your candidate doesn’t make the cut, the decision to release raw vote totals could cause confusion if the results are very close.

Politico breaks down the issue with an analogy to the electoral college which makes a little more sense:

Think of it as Iowa’s version of the 2016 Electoral College issue: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump handily in the popular vote total but lost the ultimate battle for electoral votes because of her failure in a handful of key places.

But the disclosure of two vote tallies and one delegate count on the night of the Feb. 3 caucuses — a move made to inject more transparency into the caucus process — is threatening to muddle the narrative coming out of Iowa. Depending on how the numbers are interpreted, there’s a scenario in which more than one candidate could claim a “win.”

Under these rules, a candidate could win the raw vote total in Iowa precincts, yet come away with fewer delegates as was the case in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

In previous caucus years, only the delegate counts at the end were provided to the media. But this year, Democrats will also be providing the before-and-after raw vote totals, too. The party is expected to release results of each count at the same time.

“This is going to be our most transparent caucus that we ever put out because of the paper trail,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said.

If there’s a repeat of 2016 — when Clinton won 49.8 percent of so-called state delegate equivalents, compared to Sanders’ 49.6 percent — the battle between the candidates to project themselves as the victor could be ugly.

It’s ironic that Hillary lost the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses to Bernie Sanders, yet won 23 delegates to Bernie’s 21, then went on to win the popular vote against Donald Trump in the general election yet lost to him in the electoral college.

Reporting app adds a new dimension

Another matter for Iowa Democrats to deal with this year is the addition of a new smartphone app to help with reporting faster caucus results. In prior years, the process of reporting has been slow and clunky. In 2020, however, the process could be improved, according to NPR:

Iowa’s Democratic Party plans to use a new Internet-connected smartphone app to help calculate and transmit results during the state’s caucuses next month, Iowa Public Radio and NPR have confirmed.

Iowa’s complicated caucus process is set to take place Feb. 3 in gymnasiums, churches, recreation centers and other meeting places across the state.

Iowa’s Democrats hope the new app lets the party get results out to the public quicker, says Troy Price, the chairman of the state party.

The DNC claims to have worked out security concerns related to foreign interference or general cyber tampering with the results, but it remains to be seen whether this helps or hurts the process. Some cybersecurity experts have expressed concern with the decision to bring in internet-connected smartphone reporting:

Cybersecurity experts interviewed by NPR said that the party’s decision to withhold the technical details of its app doesn’t do much to protect the system — and instead makes it hard to have complete confidence in it.

“The idea of security through obscurity is almost always a mistake,” says Doug Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a former caucus precinct leader. “Drawing the blinds on the process leaves us, in the public, in a position where we can’t even assess the competence of the people doing something on our behalf.”

That prospect is anything but comforting whether it’s a foreign power trying to influence the outcome, or some rogue actors working on behalf of a candidate to cause mayhem, we don’t yet know what this will mean on caucus night. It’s also possible that the Iowa Democratic Party has been diligent in their development of this app and the process could go perfectly smooth. In all truthfulness, the biggest detriment when employing new technology like this is sometimes the most basic user error when trying to use it under stressful conditions on a busy caucus night.

A paper backup system will still be in place in case the new reporting app fails on caucus night or causes a bottleneck of workers who get stuck somewhere along the way of using it.

The caucus system looks antiquated in some respects compared to a simple model of primary voting, but it has the intention of bringing national politics down to the local level.

Caucusgoers meet in local schools, fire halls, and churches, sometimes even homes, and hash out their preferences for a candidate. Then they divide up and do a headcount. Any candidate with less than 15 percent support is considered “non-viable.” At that point, supporters of “non-viable” candidates can join a viable candidate group, or merge with another non-viable group to form a viable group for any given candidate. Another headcount is taken and the results are counted up.

It seems simple enough on paper, but in practice, unpredictability usually rules the day.