Opinion

KOLB: How To Fix A Broken Iowa Caucus And A Broken Primary System

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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We now know that whenever something goes wrong with an American election, the fault must lie with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Russians generally, Ukrainians particularly or some combination of those four actors.

Iowa has now suffered three successive, bipartisan caucus meltdowns: 2012 between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the GOP caucus, 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic caucus, and now again in 2020 within the Democratic caucus. It’s obvious when you think about it that the problems with Iowa’s caucuses are altogether unique and can be traced to evil influencers and hackers hard at work … in the Caucasus.

That’s the most logical explanation, right? Messed up caucuses can only come from the Caucasus.

What’s also remarkable about the Iowa caucus debacle is that supposedly smart campaign professionals decided to rely on a mobile-phone app that was used to report caucus results after being uploaded onto an unsecure, personal cell phone.

How could something like this happen after three-plus years of hyperventilating about election security, foreign hacking, false data and the need for vigilance? What were these people thinking? Had they never heard of beta testing?

But seriously. Absent concrete information about evil actors in Baku, it’s time to move on and scrap the Iowa caucus concept: it’s opaque, outmoded, unwieldy, confusing and messy.

Moreover, why should small, unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire have a lock on early presidential campaign voting?

Here’s a different, possibly better way.

In 2022, the major political parties, either jointly or separately, should select which states go first in the primary season by a random drawing of states from names placed in a hat (or on a ball, like in many state lotteries).

Most American states hold primaries or caucuses. Let’s drop the caucus and move exclusively to primaries. We can keep the same primary schedule (two contests in February, Super Tuesday, etc.), but the schedule of participants on each primary day would vary depending on whether the first two states selected at random were, say, Florida and Nevada or California and Alaska.

The state primary lineups would differ from cycle-to-cycle in a way that would also change the overall presidential campaign dynamic. Right now, every potential candidate knows that he or she must devote enormous attention and resources to two small, northern-tier states whose demographic profile hardly tracks today’s America. These outlier states wield enormous power and influence that are disproportionate to their size.  Nothing personal, but they’re just not good leading indicators given their sample sizes.

Political professionals will hate this idea because it amounts to scrapping the present system which otherwise would enable the 2024 presidential campaign to begin on Wednesday, November 4, 2020. These campaign professionals would not know until 2022 where to concentrate their time, organizations and money.

A shortened candidate selection cycle would probably be welcomed by most Americans (including the families of most candidates and perhaps even the candidates themselves), but certainly not by the media, campaign finance, and political consultant cottage industries that thrive on these predictable four-year rituals.

So let’s end the predictability. Rather than the same quadrennial sequencing, let’s mix it up every four years. With 50 different states vying to be “the first,” there’s no logical or fair way to make that choice other than by random selection.

Choosing by population or delegate size would mean that states like California, Texas, New York and Florida would always appear at the front stages of the primary season. Smaller states like Delaware and New Hampshire would always come at the end stages of the primary season and be virtually ignored. That’s not a good approach either.

There are no doubt other ideas for reforming the current process, and we should use the recent Iowa debacle as a springboard for reforming today’s cumbersome costly, and confusing approach.

There’s no longer any reasonable justification for holding caucuses. And after Iowa, how do you think the candidates and their loved ones feel after having invested so much time and money only to achieve inconclusive or questionable results?

Many Iowans, of course, will miss the attention and the money dispensed by candidates, consultants, pollsters, the media, and the tourists who flood the state for over two years before the voting begins. Why not spread around that wealth more evenly?

Our presidential elections have experienced hanging chads, database hacks and now malfunctioning apps. If we want to remain the world’s most vibrant democracy, then it’s past time to clean up our own electoral act.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House