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Dempocalypse Now

It’s only one bad night, but it’s hard to imagine Iowa going worse for Democrats than it just did

Election 2020 Iowa Caucus

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One candidate claimed victory before a single vote was officially reported. Another released his own internal and incomplete election results. A surrogate for a third candidate cast doubt on the integrity of the vote. The state party tried to assure the public that the problems were “not a hack or an intrusion.” A hashtag trended on Twitter calling for Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez’s resignation.

As Monday night bled into Tuesday morning, the Iowa caucus had no winner. Due to a technology snafu, party leaders and volunteers found themselves struggling to report their final caucus tallies. The candidates were furious. Julián Castro, the former candidate who now backs Elizabeth Warren, called it a “total mess.” The public went to sleep with no clue about the outcome of the opening contest of the 2020 campaign. Pundits predicted that Iowa had so botched the job that the state would surely lose its coveted first-in-the-nation status.

For the Democrats, it was nothing short of a nightmare scenario.

Now, to be clear, there was no evidence as of early Tuesday morning that vote counts had been manipulated or destroyed, according to public news reports and statements by the Iowa Democratic Party. “The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results,” a party spokeswoman said.

But by Monday evening, it was evident something had gone badly wrong. A few hours after the caucus began, the state party issued a statement that said it was putting the election data through “quality control” out of an “abundance of caution.”

News reports throughout the night said an app implemented by the state Democratic Party had malfunctioned. Politico‘s Elena Schneider quoted one Iowa Democratic source who said the party had resorted to paper data collection, adding: “The whole system largely broke.” Des Moines County Democratic Party Co-Chairman Tom Courtney told NPR, “Everyone’s having trouble calling in the results” and he would wait to call in his results until Tuesday morning.

Around that time the Iowa Democratic Party shed more light on what had gone wrong. A spokeswoman said in a statement that the party “found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results.” The spokeswoman added that the party was taking extra precautions, including photos of caucus tallies and other paper evidence, to validate that all results matched.

The glacial pace of the caucus reporting process and the use of the term “quality control” fueled efforts to delegitimize and undermine the integrity of the caucus process. Brad Parscale, President Trump’s re-election manager, seized on the state Democratic Party’s statements to sow doubt about the Democratic caucus outcome by tweeting, “Quality control = rigged?”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) trotted out an old Republican talking point questioning whether Americans could trust Democrats to run the country if they couldn’t run a state election:

Such taunts should be seen for what they are — namely, politically calculated ploys to undermine the eventual result in Iowa and trust in Democratic candidates. Still, there’s no denying that the Iowa Democratic Party’s bungling of the caucus breeds cynicism and demoralizes voters in a year when Democrats need historic turnout to defeat President Trump.

It was an embarrassing sight for Democrats, especially considering that Democrats are typically the most vocal when it comes to stressing the importance of election integrity. Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine law professor and author of the new book Election Meltdown, says failures in election administration can be as much of a threat to free and fair elections as the specter of foreign interference or online propaganda. “The only saving grace to the Iowa caucus debacle is that it was not a November 2020 foul-up,” Hasen tells Rolling Stone. “But there are enough pockets of incompetence in running elections that if things are very close in 2020, the entire integrity of the election could be called into question.”

The candidates each reacted differently to the non-result in Iowa. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren gave platitudinal speeches to fired-up crowds that hewed to familiar themes and looked ahead to New Hampshire. The exception was Pete Buttigieg, who claimed victory despite the absence of any official results. “By all indications we are going to New Hampshire victorious,” he said to a crowd that interrupted him with chants of boot-edge-edge! The Sanders campaign released an incomplete internal tally of caucus results from around the state showing Sanders in the lead, only for the Buttigieg campaign to respond with its own set of internal numbers favorable to — you guessed it — Mayor Pete.

Iowa Democrats now say they’ll announce the caucus results sometime on Tuesday. By then, the damage will already have been done: The story of Iowa 2020 will be one of confusion and chaos. For the Democratic Party, it’s hard to imagine a more disastrous way to kick off the 2020 presidential campaign than what has happened in Iowa.