When Coin Flips Decide Presidents: Something’s Gone Wrong with Democracy

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I am not going to lie, I have spent a crazy amount of time over the last six months reading politics in preparation for Iowa.  And last night did not disappoint!  In fact, whether you hated or loved the results, you have to admit that Iowa is fascinating.  By law they get to have the very first turn at picking the President, but only because they caucus.  The candidates have to campaign in Iowa in very unique ways.  They have to go door to door like your average county commissioner.  They have to pretend to like ethanol and to talk to Jesus on a regular basis.  They have to open booths at county fairs right next to the free donkey rides and they have to shake hands outside of pizzerias.  It is a lot of fun to watch.

They do this all summer and autumn until it all culminates in one night where hundreds of local communities get together and try to decide which candidate to support.  I loved every minute of following Iowa these last few months, right up through the results last night.

Then I woke up this morning with a nasty hangover whose primary symptom was cynicism.  There was something wrong and fishy about this whole thing and I am not sure I like it.

First of all Iowa’s population is 3 million.  3 million people is actually less than %1 of the US population.  More than that, only a bit more than 300,000 people actually went to the caucuses last night.  That is about 10 percent of Iowa.  So we are letting 1/10th of 1% of our population have an incredible amount of say in how the nomination battles take place.  That makes me a little uncomfortable but I still understand that someone has to go first.  Might as well be Iowa.

But then another story broke.  Hillary only “won” the caucuses because of six coin tosses in six different places.  It seems that the caucus model doesn’t leave room for ties, so the local commissioners had to figure out a way to break it.  And what better than a coin flip?  This wouldn’t have been a story if the election had not been close.  If it had been a landslide, we would all be rolling our eyes at the silly Iowan hicks who flip coins.  But the election was a tie and six coins gave Clinton the “lead.”  So now those coins are headlines as is her incredibly arrogant press release at 3am this morning before the official results were in.

Some are using the coins to critique the caucus system.  Some are using it to critique Iowa’s over inflated importance.  And still others are using it to say something more critical and profound about the state of our democracy.  I am in that last group.

Because this whole thing disturbs me.

The caucuses are not to blame.  They are closer to representing what the founding fathers of the US envisioned.  To them, democracy was not a group of people sitting in private booths pushing out chads and pulling levers, or even worse sitting at home weeks before the election with 8 envelopes that must be folded and “enveloped” just so in order for the vote to count.  (I misfolded mine in 2012 and my presidential vote for “Stephen Colbert” went uncounted.)

No, to the founding fathers democracy was about getting everybody together in a room and forcing them to work together.  This is why we elect our President not through popular vote but through delegates.  The original idea was that communities would gather together and pick someone from their community that they respected and trusted.  That delegate would then go to Washington and meet with the other delegates from around the country.  They would all bicker and argue about who the President should be but then the majority would rally around someone and the delegate would report back to the constituents who the President was.

The hope was that if we chose someone we trusted, we could trust them to pick someone trustworthy to be President.  We hoped trust would trickle up to the high echelons of power.

We are very far removed from that system and I see no hope of going back.  In fact, what disturbs me most about the primary process is that I will not know one thing about my delegate to the national conventions.  There is a high chance this year that both conventions could be “brokered” which means that on the second vote the delegates will not have to vote for who I tell them to vote for.  This means someone I do not know or trust might pick my party’s nominee.  I should spend a lot more time figuring out who that person is than who the candidates are!

If that doesn’t disturb you, then this will.  There is absolutely nothing that guarantees your state delegate to Washington D.C. for the general Presidential election has to vote for who you tell them to vote for.  Every Presidential election has had at least one delegate jump ship and vote for someone different than who their state told them to.  I live in Utah which will almost certainly vote for a Republican President but that doesn’t mean the Utah delegate has to choose the Republican.  They might go Democrat or even abstain from voting.  This happens all the time but so far hasn’t changed the outcome of the election.  The minute it does (and that day is coming) the foundations of our shaky democracy will crumble.  Be that as it may, there is some more info on national delegates here.

We are a far cry from what the founding fathers envisioned.  Their vision was about people getting together in rooms and choosing trustworthy local leaders to represent them at the state and national levels.  Currently we do the opposite.  We isolate ourselves from our communities and climb into tiny little booths.  When we do so we are quite arrogant, assuming that we think we know everything about the candidates when in fact we know next to nothing other than their appearance and party.  You can’t really know someone until you have met them face to face.  But we assume we are little gods who know everything and we pull our lever of power and then spew vitriol at those who disagree but we do it from behind closed doors.

This is not democracy.  This is arrogance.

What we should be doing is far more humble.  It is gathering together with our neighbors and having honest but confrontational dialog.  We should sit in a room together until we can all agree on a delegate whom we know.  Then we should trust that delegate to make the right decision about who the President should be.

Therefore the reason the coin flips in Iowa bug me so much has nothing to do with the caucus format.  It has everything to do with the reality that the coins were the easy and lazy way out.  Those communities should have lived into the spirit of the Fathers and argued until there was a majority.  That is how democracy is supposed to work and I pray, without much hope, we can get there again.

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