By Bhaskar Sunkara
This has been a confusing 24 hours, to say the least. The Iowa caucus appeared to go fine, but then a tabulating fiasco delayed official results. We’re still waiting on them.
The problem, in part, was rooted in a “Shadow Inc” application used to help tally the votes. The app had gotten attention in the weeks before the caucus, with experts worrying that it could be vulnerable to hacking.
There’s no indication that happened, and since the results were also all recorded manually, we should have confidence in their integrity (if not the byzantine caucus system itself). But it’s just another reason why some voters might not trust election results. Liberals have at times made hysterical claims that Russia “hacked” the election results in 2016. Keith Olbermann even went as far as to say that the United States was the victim of a “Russian coup”.
On the right, Donald Trump pushed the idea that illegal voting could swing elections in 2016, paving the way for him to contest a potential Hillary Clinton victory that year. And he’s renewed those claims recently, stating last July that “You’ve got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times. Not just two times, not just three times … It’s a rigged deal.” Of course, the widespread problem is not illegal voting, but voter suppression – the systematic effort by Republican officials to make it harder for poor people, particularly people of color, to participate in elections.
On the left, Bernie Sanders supporters have a more reasonable beef. The Democratic National Committee pushed its preferred candidate in 2016, helping the Hillary Clinton team beat Bernie Sanders through measures such as limiting the number of debates (25 in 2008, but down to six in 2016). But these actions have been inflated into a narrative that the DNC “rigged” an election that Sanders would have otherwise won.
The key reason why Sanders fell short by several million votes in the primaries – that he was a relatively unknown candidate who ran out of time as he was gaining momentum – doesn’t have the same visceral appeal as a “stolen” race.
With Iowa, these claims will only get more attention. With 62% of the vote released as of Tuesday night, it appears that Sanders won the first and second rounds of the popular vote, but is slightly behind Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count. But on Monday night Buttigieg was able to take the stage and prematurely claim victory, and more importantly Sanders’ main rival, Joe Biden, was able to escape to New Hampshire without having the media reckon with the fact that the presumptive national frontrunner probably placed fourth in Iowa.
Saying that elections are all 'hacked' or manipulated nowadays is a great way to encourage working people not to come out and vote.
It’s all quite convenient. And the name of the tech company that made the dubious app that caused much of the trouble is Shadow Inc!
But fellow Bernie Sanders supporters hear my plea – we gain nothing by playing into the idea that the process is so stacked against us that we can’t win. For one, saying that elections are all “hacked” or manipulated nowadays is a great way to encourage working people not to come out and vote. Why bother supporting an insurgent candidate, if the outcome is already assured?
Beyond that, this emphasis is a distraction from both the economic concerns that Bernie Sanders excels at talking about and the grassroots organizing that’s propelling him so far this campaign. Sanders placed well in Iowa, not because his Twitter warriors memed the DNC hard enough, but because his volunteers knocked on 500,000 doors in the state inJanuary alone. Despite only 4% of caucus attendees being Latino, they poured $1.5m into bilingual mailers. The campaign made so many phone calls (more than 7m) that they had to tell volunteers to stop – they had virtually no one left to call.
This unprecedented ground game was all in the service of a popular candidate running on a popular set of issues. There’s a reason why Democratic party elites like John Podesta are worried about the Sanders campaign – Bernie could very well win. With a dedicated base of supporters and turnout from lower-propensity voters, like working-class Latinos, Sanders has reliable votes and volunteers. And by the time the establishment coheres around Biden or some other candidate it will be too late.
We need to be vigilant for dirty tricks and rule changes meant to undermine us, but we should feel confident that victory is possible. And that means letting people know that their vote will be counted, and that even the flawed institutions of American democracy can sometimes deliver progress.