From 1587 to 1983, the Catholic Church employed a lawyer, popularly known as the “Devil’s Advocate,” to argue against a candidate up for sainthood. It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view of the evidence and ask difficult questions.
After the fiasco of the failed U.S. supported invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961, the CIA began bringing in experts to argue against operations being planned, in order to prepare for all possibilities even if they ultimately went ahead with an operation.
Notably, after Pope John Paul II downgraded the Devil’s Advocate office, canonizations skyrocketed. And notably, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, those who questioned overly optimistic post-invasion scenarios were not invited to further meetings.
Which brings us to the 2020 Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucuses, which were held on Feb. 3 and at which the counting of votes was a total mess. How and why did this happen?
First, when there are multiple candidates, Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses are inherently chaotic. Why? Because organizers first count the people supporting a candidate and then ask voters to go support someone else if their initial candidate has not reached a 15% threshold. So you have people wandering around gyms for a couple of hours until there is a final count and delegates are allocated. (Note: Caucuses run by Iowa Republicans are simpler. Caucus-goers listen to some speeches, then vote once and leave).
Things had worked OK in the past in Iowa because they just made one final count and then phoned in the delegate allocations. Nobody ever paid much attention to the raw numbers because it was absurd to think there could be a truly accurate total vote count with people milling about for hours. They did the best they could, announced a “delegate winner,” and the candidates headed to New Hampshire.
But this year they made two big fateful decisions: They would count the total number of “first vote” and “second vote” caucus-goers for each candidate, and they would have caucus coordinators in the nearly 1,700 caucus precincts send in the results with a never-before-used phone app. The phone app failed, so precinct captains started phoning in the results. However, the dedicated phone number leaked out via social media, and the phone lines were clogged by media inquiries and pranksters.
Finally, the phone bank workers and the Iowa Democratic Party were often unsure exactly what numbers they were getting.
Which gets us back to the Devil’s Advocate, the Bay of Pigs and the invasion of Iraq. It’s becoming clear that the following questions either weren’t asked or were asked but then discarded: What if the phone app doesn’t work? If the plan for the phone app not working is to call in results, are the phone bank workers trained to collect that data? If they are trained (which they weren’t), what happens if the phone number becomes public via social media and the line is inundated with calls?
Have we made clear to the media and the candidates that this is not a primary but a caucus and that caucuses are messy and that we may not have results that night?
Is the Iowa Caucus finished? No. The Democrats can fix it with some simple changes: Get rid of the 15% threshold, adopt the Republican caucus method, move it to a Saturday afternoon, announce the results on Sunday.
And hire a Devil’s Advocate.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.