12/26/2007 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Shrugs At Iowa's Undemocratic Caucuses

In January 2004, Howard Dean's campaign was strategizing the Iowa caucuses. Confident they had locked in enough committed supporters to carry the state, staffers were reportedly thinking of ways of helping John Kerry rise in the final results. With Wesley Clark threatening Dean's dominant position in New Hampshire, the Dean campaign thought that boosting Kerry in Iowa would make him more competitive in the Granite State and siphon votes away from Clark.

Dean's caucus night ended up being starkly different from what his campaign had planned; and boosted by his Iowa triumph, John Kerry did siphon votes away from Wesley Clark, though significantly more than what Dean had in mind.

Four years later, campaigns are preparing similar ploys and alliances. Rumors are circulating of an agreement between John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to help bury Barack Obama; or is it perhaps Bill Richardson that the Clinton campaign is trying to get on board? And will Denis Kucinich renew his 2004 alliance with Edwards?

In this strategic fury, hardly anyone is pausing to wonder what Iowa's openness to such manipulation reveals about America's electoral process. Many criticize representative democracies for reducing individuals to pawns in larger power plays, but only the Iowa caucuses can reveal just how profoundly dysfunctional the system is in its indifference to local undemocratic processes.

Iowa's Democratic caucuses are anything but a straight-up election. Each precinct is allocated a certain number of delegates who are then distributed among candidates who have reached the 15 percent viability level. At the end of the night, only the percentage of delegates each candidate has carried is reported.

Campaigns quickly end up with "spare voters." They often fail to reach the viability threshold and all their backers must realign; or just as probable is that a campaign can afford giving away a few backers and still end up with the same number of delegates. If it is sufficiently coordinated, an effort to redirect such "spare voters" to another candidate can deprive a third who is deemed to be the bigger threat of an extra delegate. Across all precincts, such a strategy can add up to significant percentages.

But that anyone can not be repulsed by the idea of a "spare voter" shows how immune we have gotten to affronts to the democratic process. In what kind of democracy is a voter so useless and reducible to a commodity that can be swapped away? How can the rest of the country tolerate that the nomination race be so heavily influenced by a contest in which victory is attained through back-door agreements to exchange supporters?

Granted, there are plenty of examples of similarly undemocratic processes at the heart of the American system. But in the era of powerful urban machines that dominated local politics, the country at least pretended to look away. Imagine if the nation gathered in Chicago every four years to celebrate the glory of Richard Daley's iron fist.

The reality is that we will never know precisely how people intended to vote as they went in their caucus site on January 3rd and what the results would have been if Iowa Democrats voted straightforwardly like in any other primary contest and even like Iowa Republicans whose process is much less quirky.

The list of grievances against Iowa's caucus process is strikingly long even beyond the shady voter-swapping strategies. For one, the allocation of delegates is biased towards rural precincts who get a larger share than their voting population justifies. And come caucus night, there always are a few of these precincts where only one voter shows up and can single-handedly decide who gets the delegates.

Many people simply cannot afford putting aside four hours on a Thursday night. Some might be working late hours and cannot make it on time; couples who have children might not be able to both caucus since someone has to watch the kids; and many might just not want to stay up that late on a working night.

Despite the massive organization and the media spotlight, only about 10 percent of Iowa Democrats are expected to participate in the caucuses. And given how intense the night can be and the insider deals that decide the results, it is hardly surprising that Iowans shy away if they are not firmly committed to a candidate or if they are not used to attending such caucuses.

Caucusing is a daunting process, mainly because voting is a public act. Caucus-goers have to physically move to the part of the room where their candidate's group is standing and often follow it up by defending their choice in front of their peers. Observers too often celebrate this as a symbol of participatory democracy though it is the aspect of the process that has the most troubling consequences.

Can everyone be expected to escape the pressure of seeing respected members of the community move somewhere else? What if a woman feels uncomfortable telling her husband who she is truly supporting? What if the employer of a Chris Dodd-backer is supporting Obama?

The realignment phase only exacerbates these problems as attempts to persuade others is an integral part of the caucus process. If Chris Dodd is unviable in this particular district, the employee will be directly subjected to appeals from backers of other candidates. To refuse to join the camp of the Illinois Senator, the now-former Dodd supporter would need to actively refuse his employer's plea. The implicit pressure inherent to any social situation here finds itself vocalized and sanctioned.

Hopefully enough caucus-goers will be able to withstand such stress. But odds are many will succumb to exactly the kind of manipulations secret ballot voting is meant to prevent.

There was an outcry last week when a media consortium announced it would conduct and possibly report an entrance poll of the caucuses, interrogating people on their way in. The poll would thus measure voter support prior to any realignment and report raw individual numbers rather than delegate allocations. Since this will in no way correspond to the totals the Iowa Democratic Party will release at the end of the caucuses, media critics charged that such surveys would be misleading.

In fact, the official results are much more likely to be misleading than the entrance polls.