What went wrong in Iowa?

Rural voters express frustration: 'People can go on and say, "Jesus, these people don’t know what they’re doing."'

Iowans watch for results from their home state after attending a satellite caucus in Washington, D.C. Photo by Robin Bravender/States Newsroom
Iowans watch for results from their home state after attending a satellite caucus in Washington, D.C. Photo by Robin Bravender/States Newsroom

A caucus leader in Clayton County stood outside in the wind, trying to get cell service to send in her precinct results.

Another leader in Davis County spent weeks trying to download the results reporting app before the caucuses. She called into the Iowa Democrats hotline instead to share her results and waited 50 minutes.

But at Hardin County, a precinct captain reported no issues with the app and said things went smoothly with good wifi at Hubbard Middle School.

For the last year, all eyes have been on Iowa as presidential candidates courted the state, anxiously awaiting the results of the Iowa Caucuses on Feb. 3.

A day later, the world was still waiting as international criticism struck Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status once more.

Local Democrats say the condemnations are unfair, however, as their caucuses went well up until they tried to use the new reporting tools to send in their results.

“In our precinct, we considered it to be a success. It went very smoothly,” said Faith Blaskovich, former chair of the Calhoun County Democrats who recently moved to Clayton County. “But boy, went it came to that phone app — that’s too bad.”

For the first time this year, precincts used apps to report the results from their caucuses. While the data the app collected was accurate, only partial numbers were being reported due to a coding error, according to a news release from the Iowa Demoratic Party.

“As this investigation unfolded, IDP staff activated pre-planned backup measures and entered data manually. This took longer than expected,” according to the news release.

Because paper documentation of the results is required as well from precincts, the party was able to verify the data from the app with the submitted papers, according to the news release. 

The Iowa Democratic Party announced it would release 50% of precinct results at 4 p.m. on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, final results were still not available.

County chair: ‘People were not well-instructed’

Complications in Clayton County started before the night of the Iowa Caucuses, however, said Blaskovich.

“People were not well instructed from it in the beginning,” Blaskovich. “There was not enough education about that at all.”

To compound issues, a lack of cell service made calling in results to the Iowa Democratic Party hotline impossible Monday night, Blaskovich said.

After standing outside in the cold attempting to get service, Blaskovich said she told her precinct’s caucus leader to go home and try there instead.

“She waited out there and waited out there,” Blaskovich said. “When it’s 8:30 and the wind is blowing, your patience is very low. They’re all volunteers.”

But when it came to the actual caucus process, Blaskovich said everything went well in her precinct at Clayton County. While there were winners and losers, people enjoyed talking with their neighbors and supporting their candidates.

She believes the intense scrutiny from national outlets will move on.

“I will always maintain Iowa is the best state you can pick,” Blaskovich said. “In Iowa, each of those candidates have to stand up for what they believe in. However they behave is going countrywide. You won’t have that in New York or California.”

Long wait times on caucus hotline

For weeks, Cheryll Jones, chair of the Davis County Democrats attended caucus training sessions along with others from her county.

Jones said she was pleased with how the caucuses in her county turned out. At Davis County High School in Bloomfield, all of the precincts were finished by 9 p.m.

But she didn’t pull into her driveway until 11:30 p.m. as she waited to send in results through the Iowa Democratic Party hotline.

“When I was on the line for 50 minutes I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a problem,’” Jones said. “This is not the history of what’s worked.”

Weeks ago, Jones said she tried to download the reporting app, but it didn’t work. Because reporting on the app was optional, she decided she would report her numbers through the hotline instead, like she did in previous years. 

Out of her eight precincts, seven people used the hotline to report their numbers.

The longtime Democrat’s fear is app and reporting complications will further the narrative that Iowa shouldn’t be first.

“People can go on and say, ‘Jesus, these people don’t know what they’re doing.’ You can argue the app should have been better tested. It probably should have been,” Jones said. “We’re from a small rural county, but it was an opportunity for folks to get there people. People really enjoyed the caucus. It was well run.”

Not all precincts experienced challenges with reporting their numbers.

Smooth sailing in Hardin County

Patrick Gagnard, a precinct captain in Hardin County, said everything went smoothly.

When he made a mistake logging into the app, Iowa Democratic Party staff were available for questions. 

He said he was able to log in the numbers and send everything from Hubbard Middle School, where around 76 people showed up to caucus in his precinct.

“I’m glad I’m not in charge of it,” Gagnard said. “I imagine people didn’t have sleep.”

When Jones finally got home Monday night, she spoke with other local Democrats. 

They feel like losing Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is at real risk. 

But Jones recounted the stacks of paperwork and the amount of math she and other leaders did to ensure the accuracy of the reporting from their county, including the backup paper trail.

And she believes that should count for something.

“People can argue we shouldn’t caucus,” Jones said. “That’s a valid discussion to have, but I don’t want people to go away thinking the results aren’t accurate.”

This piece originally ran in the Examiner’s sister publication the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.