Caucus Counting Troubles Plague Primaries

Republican caucus vote counters seem to be having trouble this primary season. In Iowa, they said Romney won by eight votes, then revised that figure and said Santorum won. In Nevada, they couldn't count 2,000 votes for a day and a half, and then got into a fight about who could vote after sundown at a special caucus for Orthodox Jews.

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In addition to Missouri holding its primary, Minnesota and Colorado held caucuses today. The year's first two caucuses were marked by intense campaigning and media coverage, but also revealed a process fraught with flaws, including a wrong call in Iowa and delayed results in Nevada.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, those flaws have many now wondering whether caucuses are really the best way to choose a presidential nominee.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: We have a romantic image of the presidential caucuses, one of earnest citizens engaging in the political process in their communities, braving the chill of an Iowa winter to participate in our great democracy - like here in Van Meter County, where Tom Harveson brought things to order last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAUCUS)

TOM HARVESON: If everybody would rise, we'll begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (In unison) I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

NAYLOR: The vast majority of the caucus attendees and officials are volunteers; caucuses are the essence of grassroots politics. And that's good, but it points to a problem with the caucus system, says Dennis Goldford. He's a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: The charm of the caucuses is their amateur and volunteer character. But the vulnerability - or the weakness of the caucus is precisely the same thing: their amateur and voluntary - or volunteer character.

NAYLOR: Unlike general elections - where there are formal voting procedures using machines, and computers overseen by the secretary of state - caucuses are administered by party officials, many with little training and facing an unfamiliar jumble of rules and procedures.

In Iowa, that helped lead to the embarrassing-for-the-party result of first Mitt Romney and then some weeks later, Rick Santorum being declared the winner - with the admission there were so many irregularities that it's not clear, exactly, who won the first-in-the-nation contest.

Rick Hasen writes an election law blog, and teaches law at the University of California-Irvine.

RICK HASEN: The way that the Republican Iowa caucus was run has probably caused a lot of people to think twice about whether we should give so much importance to a process that is far from perfect.

NAYLOR: Few would argue that the process in Nevada's caucuses last Saturday was much better. It took officials there until the next morning to finish counting votes. One complicating factor was a special night caucus, held in Las Vegas only for those whose religious convictions kept them from voting during daylight hours. It led to heated arguments over who, exactly, qualified.

Leslie Swain, a Seventh Day Adventist, didn't think much of the process, even though he was one of its beneficiaries.

LESLIE SWAIN: I think this caucus is a joke. It should be a primary. There's going to be a lot of people who would normally vote, who are not going to get a chance to vote. It's - I don't understand the reasoning behind it, but you take what you can get.

NAYLOR: Unlike Iowa's caucus, the vote in Nevada will lead to the awarding of delegates. It's not clear whether the bumpy caucus process this year will lead to changes. Political scientist David Damore, of UNLV, says the caucuses themselves were a result of previous reform efforts.

DAVID DAMORE: The whole purpose of having the caucuses, and the primaries, in each of the states was to remove the power from the party bosses, so to speak, and to avoid the backroom deals at the national party conventions that had sort of been the norm in American politics; and allow the rank-and-file voters to ultimately make the decision here.

So, you know, as always seems to happen in politics when you sort of reform the process, you end up with all these unintended consequences.

NAYLOR: One idea to improve the process - at least, in Iowa - is to use old-fashioned carbon paper forms to record votes, rather than single pieces of paper. Another is to use voting machines. But that might be too much like a primary to suit New Hampshire, which jealously guards its first-in-the-nation primary status.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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