Supporters of Bernie Sanders have been out in force on social media today, celebrating their candidate’s strong showing Monday night but also spreading around a variety of conspiratorial allegations of misconduct by Clinton caucusgoers that they claim may have tipped the extraordinarily close contest in her favor. Not likely, one of the architects of the Iowa caucuses tells the Informer.
This morning, Facebook was cluttered with links to a five-minute C-SPAN 2 clip, posted by “an anonymous user,” of a minor dispute over the counting of Clinton supporters at a Roosevelt High School precinct in Des Moines and titled “Clinton voter fraud in Polk County, Iowa Caucus.” After an initial count showing Sanders with a slight edge among 459 caucusgoers, Martin O’Malley supporters and undecided voters split between the Sanders and Clinton camps, with Clinton taking the lead by eight and three people apparently having left the site early. A small handful of Sanders supporters, suspicious of how thorough the new calculations were, demands a full recount to determine why there are now only 456 caucusgoers, but a majority vote that appears to include a number of Sanders supporters shoots down the idea.
This seemingly routine bit of caucusing, to a fair number of Sanders supporters (as well as the website of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and right wing blogs snarking at the accurate assertion by liberals that voter fraud is mostly an invention of the GOP imagination) suddenly became evidence that Clinton was rigging the process to eke out a win and stifle Sanders’ momentum.
Richard Bender, an architect of the Iowa Democratic caucus system who has been involved in verifying the count since 1972, hasn’t seen the specific clip in question but knows the process as well as anyone. After hearing an explanation of the video, he says it’s “possible but not likely” that the three-voter discrepancy would have made a difference in the 5-4 delegate split for Clinton if it was indicative of a counting error (the caucus chairman says something to the same effect in the clip).
Regardless, because of the way delegates are divvied up by a statewide aggregation of the total number of county-level delegates assigned throughout the 1,683 precincts to arrive at the much smaller state delegate equivalent numbers you probably saw on TV last night, it’s unlikely the Roosevelt precinct alone would have had any impact on the overall result either way — even with a result closer than any Bender has ever before seen in his decades of caucus-watching.
“This is not the sign of some huge conspiracy,” adds Bender, who is confident that the caucus results reported by the Democratic Party are accurate. “The reality is, the Democratic — and the Republican — precinct caucuses have a lot of very specific rules that they operate on. They also have a lot of, you might say, cultural patterns in particular precincts and a certain casualness.”
Precinct chairs are volunteers who are trained but have varying degrees of knowledge about the process and varying levels of skill in managing a crowd. That’s where the caucus counting center Bender was at Monday night comes in. Results reported from individual precincts are triple-checked; discrepancies are flagged and not added to the official count until efforts are made to reach out to caucusgoers at the site in question. (And if there are problems, Bender says, the campaigns will be sure to let them know about it.) “There were a variety of checking mechanisms in the counting procedure,” Bender says. “And when somebody screwed up, it’s not like they were trying to do something nasty. It’s just that they screwed up. You have 1,600 volunteers; people screw up.”
Another widespread suspicion of caucus rigging, six coin flips used to determine a final delegate at tied precincts that, despite the statistical odds against it, reportedly all went Clinton’s way, is similarly meritless (and likely not even entirely accurate, according to a Democratic Party spokesman quoted in the Atlantic). Precinct counts more typically end in draws in small, rural locations where there may only be a dozen or so caucusgoers than they do at locations where hundreds show up. If the coin flips had gone to Sanders, Bender says, it’s still “extremely doubtful” that any resulting aggregate difference would have closed Clinton’s four-point delegate equivalent lead.
Other suspicions of Clinton malfeasance have been just as outlandish, including the notion that software developed by Microsoft for both parties’ caucuses might be used to tamper with the results in Clinton’s favor considering campaign contributions she’s received from company employees.
“Come on, I mean, think about this,” Bender says. “Microsoft develops this app for both parties. They are doing it to improve their reputation. If you look at the media website [where precinct results were publicly posted as they came in], or you saw it on TV, there were Microsoft signs all over. They were branding it, doing advertising to improve their brand. Do you honestly think that it makes sense that this big company is going to do something on purpose that, if it became known, is going to be devastating to their reputation? That’s crazy.”
Bender’s advice for separating legitimate concerns from baseless suspicions? If there are voting irregularities as blatant as these purportedly were, the media and aggrieved campaign itself, not fringe websites and an anonymous video poster, will be the first to spread the word.