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Opinion: Democratic Iowa caucus debacle and media coverage are symptoms of a failing democracy

American U of T students, political science professor on the 2020 race
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The new decade could be a marker for cultural change. Transitioning from the 2010s into the 2020s could herald a new period of progressivism and even usher in an international ‘Pax Americana.’ However, as 2020 wears on, this possibility seems to be fading, and the United States — the supposed beacon of modern democracy — seems to be at the centre of the decline.

The United States is the world’s leading political power, and as such, the 2020 presidential election may be the defining event of our decade. We have grounds to be concerned now that the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions has come into question. The events that transpired during the Iowa caucus are symptomatic of the Democratic Party’s failures in transparency and the continued bias both in media and within the party, which fails to keep itself accountable.

For Americans at U of T, the fate of the election, and the way that it’s being handled is a pressing issue. To better understand the attitudes of the American people and their thoughts on the situation, I set out to ask a few American students and faculty at the University of Toronto about their views on the ongoing Democratic Party primary.

Behind the scenes of the Iowa caucus

There was cause for concern during the recent Iowa caucus, largely a battle between Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg has since dropped out of the race. In brief, there was a polling debacle during the caucus in which votes were not properly tracked, making it nearly impossible to announce a clear victor. It came to light that the app tallying the votes had been poorly tested and was not prepared to process such large sums of data. By extension, the legitimacy of the votes is questionable at best.

Furthermore, Buttigieg himself had invested in the app. In an interview with The Varsity, Connor M. Ewing, an assistant professor at U of T’s Department of Political Science, suggested that because of competing incentives, the interest politicians claim to have in free and fair elections does not necessarily translate into the electoral process. Politicians are interested in having free and fair elections so long as they win.

However, Ewing also explained that there are issues aside from the app that played a part in the fiasco in Iowa. Unlike past years, the caucus decided to break down the vote into three tabulations, as opposed to merely reporting the overall count. The logic was that an overall count smooths over the nuances of the election, and does not properly reflect the popular vote. By dividing the vote into three phases, the caucus would be able to better track voters’ behaviour. And in an attempt to increase transparency, voters’ movements would be catalogued using paper records.

Additionally, the caucus revised the rules so that people who supported viable candidates could not change their position between the different tabulations. In other words, any candidate who received more than 15 per cent of the vote was considered “viable”; those who did not were deemed “non-viable.” This was  regarded as a move to discourage strategic voting and a tactic to sway the vote amongst more subsidiary voters.

In theory, such changes would eliminate discrepancies between electronic and physical polling results. However, in reality, it became impossible to discern the actual practices of voters. This is because administrators were not able to accurately record people’s voting patterns, as many moved between candidates freely between tabulations. As a result, the fundamental basis for which paper records were being used was inherently flawed. In other words, there was no way to actually know what happened during the Iowa caucus.

This becomes increasingly worrisome as the Iowa caucus sets the momentum for the remainder of the election cycle, especially with the fast-approaching “Super Tuesday” — the day when more delegates for the presidential nomination conventions are available to win than on any other day.

A look into the American psyche

Hannah Safer-Brickman, a first-year student, speculated that the internal weaknesses of the Democratic Party may put a damper on voter turnout. She explained that, “Because the party which I support failed to conduct the Iowa caucus effectively, it made me doubt their ability to actually serve responsibly in office and make important changes.” If this is true, then the next presidency may prove to be a political stalemate in which neither party can make progress. This possibility discourages voters from feeling like their votes are meaningful.

Liam Sinclair-Thompson, another first-year student, is more concerned with the long-term effects of party splintering than this particular incident. He added that the only way to “end this awful tyrannical dictatorship of Trump” is for Democrats to band together against a common enemy.

Both Safer-Brickman and Sinclair-Thompson believe that the media has done a disservice to the people this election. Safer-Brickman conceded that “the media, which is biased toward the Democratic Party, has failed to critique its leadership.” In effect, she believes that left-leaning news organizations have only contributed to the fracture within the Democratic Party.

Safer-Brickman also asked, “Without rebuke from within, how will we expect democratic leadership to take ownership of their mistakes and actually fix them?” This calls to attention another key issue: the role of free press in elections. In many ways, the media narrative of the Iowa caucus tells voters that election results are predetermined. Such occurrences not only discourage voters, but also silence them, exposing the undemocratic leaning of the corporate media.

Sinclair-Thompson maintains the same sentiment, adding that “there is a media bias against Bernie Sanders.” He suggested that because Sanders is a threat to the establishment, the media has been reluctant to question the results of the Iowa caucus.

Beyond the election results

In light of the events of the Iowa caucus, the American people are scrutinizing their democratic institutions — and rightfully so. As a result, many are searching for answers to remedy the many flaws of the electoral process.

Ewing argues that it is imperative for the government to “coordinate national and subnational powers,” as the current system is too localized.

A localized error could completely taint the outcome of the election. In contrast, a decentralized system is much safer, so long that there is a consistent standard. He went on, “The virtue of decentralization is that it is a little bit more robust… instead of a single domino collapsing [the entire structure], we can at least pull out one domino to limit the damage.”

Dr. Alexandra Rahr, a lecturer at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, is interested in the culture surrounding elections more than the electoral process itself. She explained that though the polling debacle has gained a lot of political attention, it hasn’t moved Americans enough to start a social movement. Social change is brought about when our problems are humanized, she continued — but it is difficult to humanize a process.

Especially in a period of alarmist rhetoric from politicians, it feels as though we are constantly on the brink of the world ending. Consequently, people have developed a nihilistic attitude toward democratic institutions, believing that their votes don’t matter.

Ewing’s insights are more prevalent amongst American students at U of T than amongst those living in the United States. Because they are living in another country, many have not received adequate coverage of the election, making it more difficult to exercise their civic duties. In many ways, this experience has inspired students to challenge and question the electoral system — the very touchstone of democracy.

Most importantly, Ewing reminds us that democracy is an ongoing process. It is not just about successfully conducting an election but also the persistent challenges and questions that people wrestle with. Democracy brings about an institutional response through concerted political action. It is essential for American students, and Americans as a whole, to remember this when heading to the voting booth — we must continue to uphold our democratic institutions.

Yana Sadeghi is a first-year Social Sciences student at New College.

Editor’s note (March 1, 7:30 pm): This article has been updated to state that Buttigieg has dropped out of the race.