Statistical anomalies in previous elections point to frightening vulnerabilities in how votes are tallied
In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the GOP's Iowa caucus by a margin of just eight votes.
That result was announced at 1:30 AM on Caucus night, but two weeks later there was a different result. The Republican Party of Iowa had performed a recount of the votes and Rick Santorum—a candidate broadly considered too far outside the mainstream to stand a chance in the general election—was revealed as the actual winner. By that point of course it was far too late. Romney had already gotten the media attention that comes with winning, and had capitalized on that sense of momentum to achieve a solid victory in the New Hampshire primary.
If that sounds familiar, that's because there is currently a "recanvassing" under way in Iowa to reassess the results of a contest that will once again be decided by a very slim margin. Though Bernie Sanders managed a clear victory in the popular vote, Iowa's elaborate system for awarding "State Delegate Equivalents" at each caucus location (to then be converted to the actual delegate count that determines the Democratic party's nominee), has resulted in a near-tie between Senator Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The official winner may not be announced for days or weeks—or it may never be known at all. In the mean time, Pete Buttigieg declared himself the winner on Caucus night, and has been treated as such by much of the media. With Sanders looking more and more like the frontrunner, Buttigieg is seen as much more palatable to moderate general election voters, and many powerful donors and party insiders would much rather he get the nomination. With that in mind, the chaos in Iowa—particularly the faulty app and the release of partial results that seemed to favor Buttigieg—has already sparked speculation of party corruption and election rigging for Sanders voters holding on to memories of the DNC's favoritism toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it may be more instructive to consider the model of the 2012 Republican primaries.
2012 was not a simple year for Republicans in the way 2016 was for Democrats. Much like the 2020 field of Democratic candidates, there was not a presumptive nominee, but rather a wide field of contenders with centrists—Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman—struggling against the enthusiastic support for more extreme candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. Polling seemed to swing wildly, from one candidate to the next until—according to some accounts—the RNC tipped the scales toward the man considered the most electable (read: bland and inoffensive) candidate.
The case of bias for Romney is as elaborate and detailed as every budding conspiracy theory about Acronym, Shadow Inc., and the new "Voter Protection Director" for the Nevada State Democratic Party—especially considering the contentious events of the Nevada Democratic Party state convention in 2016. Likewise, the overwhelming variety of those details is evidence—depending on your perspective—of either how insidious the whole plot was, or of the depths of its adherents' delusion.
For a start, there were a variety of issues in that year involving states attempting to increase their influence on the process by ignoring the traditional schedule for primaries and caucuses, skipping ahead of other states. The RNC was conflicted about how to handle that tactic, but many voters felt that the resulting schedule favored Romney's candidacy by allowing states where he polled well to vote earlier, further emphasizing the sense of building momentum. That much was acknowledged as a problem even at the time, but there are other issues that remain murkier. Was the miscount in Iowa intentional? Did the RNC combine fundraising with Romney's campaign too early? Did they pad Romney's delegate count to prevent a brokered convention? Most worryingly of all, were votes flipped to Romney in state primaries that lacked a paper trail?
Whatever the confusion in Iowa, the caucus system is at least public and relatively easy to monitor. But primaries that are carried out with all electronic voting machines are a black box, and the state parties run the show with little oversight. Unlike a federal election, primaries are fundamentally under the purview of political parties. They can choose their nominees however they like. They have chosen a roughly democratic system for a variety of reasons (to build enthusiasm, test candidates' campaign skills, and avoid voter alienation) but if they wanted to undermine the integrity of that process in order to ordain the candidate they see as standing the best chance in the general election, there would be little to stop them. According to two statisticians, Francois Choquette and James Johnson, that is exactly what happened in 2012.
Choquette and Johnson, 2012
When Choquette and Johnson analyzed vote totals out of hundreds of precincts, they discovered a strong tendency for voters in larger precincts to favor Mitt Romney more than did voters in smaller precincts. These results have been criticized as attributable to demographic differences between precincts, but when researchers looked at results out of precincts that kept paper records of voting, that tendency disappeared. Likewise in Utah—where Romney was always expected to win by a wide margin—the results showed no shift in preference toward Romney based on the size of the precinct. The trend was so distinct in competitive precincts with no paper trail that Choquette and Johnson were unable to account for it as a result of chance or any factor other than deliberate fraud. According to their work, Romney received approximately a 7% bump in the most populous precincts in multiple states as a result of votes flipped from other candidates—allowing him to secure the nomination handily.
Choquette and Johnson's evidence was brought to court in a lawsuit filed by a third statistician at Witchita State University. Beth Clarkson works in the university's National Center for Advanced Materials Performance, and was inspired by Choquette and Johnson's research to investigate similar anomalies in Kansas's 2014 general election—larger precincts trending toward Republican candidates. She sued to gain access to more detailed records in order to build a statistical model that could shed light on the question of fraudulent vote flipping. Unfortunately Clarkson's efforts were stymied by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who argued that releasing the time-stamped records could somehow violate voter anonymity.
Kris Kobach with Donald Trump
You may recognize Kris Kobach as perhaps the greatest enemy of unbiased elections in recent American history. Kobach is the man whose voter fraud commission pushed the false narrative of millions of fake voters in support of discriminatory voter ID laws, and whose apparent political and white-supremacist motivation for adding a citizenship question to the national census resulted in the Supreme Court rejecting the change—which would have led to dramatic under-counts of immigrant populations, and a shift in congressional districts that would disproportionately benefit the Republican party. While he was able to halt Clarkson investigation, many have credited her lawsuit as being instrumental in the push for recently enacted legislation which now requires post-election audits in Kansas. Reached for Comment, Clarkson admitted that this was a step in the right direction, though she was "not impressed" with the audit techniques being utilized.
Overall, Clarkson seems pessimistic about the fidelity and security of our elections, saying that there is still a lot of potential for fraudulent vote counts, "anytime there's no way to check a paper record." This does include several races in the Democratic primaries, though the New Hampshire primary taking place today is utilizing paper ballots, which leave less room for tampering. Nationally, there has been a push to move toward that model, but for those of us who will be casting votes on electronic machines, Clarkson advocated that, where possible, voters check their electronic vote against the paper record to ensure their vote was recorded correctly. And for all voters, Clarkson had a reminder to check your voter registration online in advance of every election. With recent voter purges Clarkson says there have been many cases "of people being surprised when they arrive at the polls to vote and find out, 'Oh, they don't have me down as a registered voter.'"
Beyond that, electronic voting remains so opaque and vulnerable, all we can do is continue pushing for paper-based voting systems and remind our nation's political institutions—as the primary process continues through New Hampshire and beyond—that we are watching them; that we will not take any irregularities lightly.
Short answer: Everything.
In a small office inside an old theatre in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders' supporters gathered to share their highlights and challenges after a day of knocking on doors.
"I'm feeling grateful," said one, before relaying a story about a surprisingly friendly interaction with a Trump supporter.
Others said they were feeling energized and inspired, despite a low response rate after hundreds of knocks and hours out in the February drear. "Just talking to one person who thanked me for being out in the field made it all worth it," said another.
The moment one person said they were feeling cold, organizers leapt into action, tossing hand-warmers to the shivering canvasser.
The New Hampshire primary was in one week. Some organizers had been in the small office for months, others had been working steadily since 2016, and still others were canvassing for the first time, but the energy in the room was palpable and warm and beautifully chaotic and fundamentally communal, much like a lot of Bernie Sanders' campaign. That has something to do with its success.
As Sanders has steadily risen in the polls, major media outlets have been forced to examine his campaign and the massive base of supporters—many young, social media-savvy, and passionately fired-up about their 79-year-old patron saint—that have propelled them to this place. Some portray his supporters as a battalion of belligerent young white males; others insist that Bernie's base is the most diverse of all; still others view them as lazy, entitled kids.
Doubters have been forced to interrogate that last opinion, because it's clear that Sanders' campaigners are anything but lazy. Sanders' campaign has garnered the highest number of individual donors of any candidate, amassing $1.3 million after discovering that a super PAC planned to air a negative ad about him. He raised nearly $100 million in 2019, topping Pete Buttigieg by some $25 million without the help of major corporations. His supporters are fervently keyed in, texting, tweeting, and—as it became clear in that New Hampshire room—getting out into the streets, taking the time to talk to people.
So what's behind Sanders' sweeping, grassroots appeal? And who are his supporters, really?
The easiest answer to this question is that there is no single answer. Bernie Sanders' supporters are working-class Americans, disaffected progressives, starry-eyed optimists, frustrated pessimists, devil's advocates, and God-fearing moralists. They are not a monolith. In that way, they might just represent the actuality of the American people—in all their contradictions, devotion, and passion—better than any other base.
"Not Me, Us" and the Fight Against American Hyper-Individualism
Miss Toni took a while to open the door. She was wearing a blue onesie covered in hearts, and her room was filled to the brim with records and posters from the 1980s. When she finally was able to open the door, a flock of birds fluttered away from her porch and took to the sky.
She told us she was already a Bernie supporter and began shakily filling out the sign-up sheet we gave her. She was registered to vote by her deadname (the male name she was given at birth), but she asked us to refer to her as Miss Tami. She had been an activist in the 1960s, she said. Bernie felt like the closest thing to bringing back the spirit of those days.
We also met a gun-owning Republican from Hawaii who, after hearing about Bernie's support for ending student debt and his dedication to ending the spirit of xenophobia in America, pledged to lend his support for Sanders on Tuesday.
Among the Trump supporters we met, their number one reason for supporting him was always the economy. "Me and my daughters are doing well."
"It would be nice if everyone could do as well as you and your family," we said. He shrugged. By the end of the conversation, he was genuinely smiling when he said, "I'm still voting for Trump. But I hope you guys keep going."
If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, the economy will be paramount to the ensuing debates. While the currently strong American economy mostly exists thanks to Obama-era policies, and while many economists project that we are headed for a recession, it is true that Trump protects the Wall Street interests that continue to ensure cutthroat capitalism's success in America and around the world. These very successes are what have led America's income inequality levels to approach Depression-era extremities.
Sanders represents a synthesis of radicalism, anticapitalism, and a realistic understanding of the threats that America and the world are facing. To many, he also—contrary to the entire Bernie Bro narrative—represents human compassion. His campaign slogan, "Not Me, Us," is a refreshing antidote to the egotistical and self-absorbed nature of politics and neoliberalism in America. It's a reminder that—like the best stories, or the best policies—Sanders is just a vessel for something much greater, a catalyst for a dream.
Sanders' Internet Army and the Limits of Tolerance
It's unfortunate that Bernie's campaign has been plagued by cruelty and disunity—and that these aspects of his base have been so heavily emphasized by the media. It's also true that some of Bernie Sanders' supporters can be cruel, and many need to learn to listen. If Bernie's supporters are serious about his campaign, they need to understand that shutting down discourse and rejecting all contention isn't the way to go about winning support.
But it's also true that in this America, people are dying thanks to medical bills they cannot pay, and students graduate into a world where they pay exorbitant amounts of money each month for years at a time in order to combat their student debt.
In light of this, the rage that many of Sanders' supporters feel at so-called centrists is born out of a deep-rooted desire to see real change instead of more of the same. It's a realization that trusting in the system and tolerating hatred is essentially the same thing as allowing them to continue.
It's also true that we're embroiled in a climate crisis, and kids are being born into a world of increasingly rampant natural disasters and apocalyptic scenarios playing out in real time, all while watching their politicians and parents do nothing. Bernie's Green New Deal is the most ambitious plan to address climate change of any candidate's; it also promises to renew the American economy, refurbishing our crumbling infrastructure by providing millions of new jobs in green, clean manufacturing. The strength of his plan has caused Sanders to gain the support of major environmental organizations across the country.
In a world where families can easily be crushed by a medical bill or a college admissions fee, Sanders' policies read like gospel for the disaffected. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform, and an end to endless wars are plans that promise actual change, packaged in a promise that can be paid for with the money that the United States spends on wars and allows to burn holes in Jeff Bezos's pockets.
The gospel-like, lyrical, and consistent nature of Sanders' policies are at the center of his movement. Like "Make America Great Again," Sanders' policies appeal to the idea that politics is theatre, that the best politicians present a show and offer a vision, a possibility, a roadmap for a movement that will get people out of their homes and into the field.
Lighting the Fire
There's a video of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, teaching his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, how to use a wood-burning furnace. Sanders is wrapped in a coat, bent over a cast-iron stove. "You want the flames from the small guys—are you recording me?" he says, stopping and then clarifying, "You want the small wood to be able to catch onto the big logs."
With his thick Brooklyn accent and his dedication to the task at hand, Sanders has intensely grandfatherly energy—but his statement also seems like it could suffice as his campaign slogan. He's a small flame, and when he began as a Vermont senator in 2016, he seemed to face impossible odds.
But every fire starts with a single spark. As the infamous poster that's a fixture in many dorm rooms reads, "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared." It's a quote from the Buddha, but it could also apply to the ripple effect that Sanders' campaign has launched.
Change is catching and intoxicating. The spirit of hope and unity and fire that lights Sanders' campaign is a balm against apathy and hopelessness, against racism and xenophobia and economic inequality. It's about what human society can achieve—what we should achieve—what we are morally obligated to achieve.
Still, many of Sanders' supporters are realistic. We are well-aware that even if Sanders is elected, it will still only be the beginning of a long, hard fight against deep-rooted economic inequality, corporate greed, and dangerous capitalism-driven climate disaster in America and around the world. We know that visions and dreams mean nothing if the work isn't put into achieving them—the long, endless nights and the decades spent carving out policies.
But it's impossible to even begin the work if the dream isn't there in the first place, and if the people who believe in the dreams aren't allowed in the rooms where the work is done.
Regardless of what happens in Iowa and on the campaign trail, even the most fervent Bernie Sanders supporters believe that cruel attacks are not the answer. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of Sanders' biggest supporters—has stated that Democrats need to support whoever is elected in order to beat Donald Trump. If anything, we will need more unity and love and compassion for each other in the coming months than ever before.
We shouldn't have to compromise our values and allow people to die while others languish in the shade of the wealth and power they did nothing to earn, save being born in the right place.
Voting in Iowa closes at 7:00 PM CST in Iowa today, February 3rd. Find your caucus site here.
The opportunity to change your party affiliation in New York State closes February 14th.
Find out how to vote for Bernie in the primary in your state here.