By Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA - Precinct 61, CC BY 2.0,

How to Run a Ranked-Choice Caucus on the Cheap

new york time iowa caucus 2020

“Democrats Confused and Angry as Iowa Caucus Results Are Delayed” — New York Times on Tuesday, February 4, 2020.

This is what we woke up to last Tuesday.

It didn’t have to be this way. From media reports, it sounds like precinct chairs were downloading an untested app the night of the caucus and running into bugs and connectivity issues. When they tried to call in their results as they had four years ago, there were not enough call center operators to handle the volume. Thankfully, it appears there was a paper trail of ballots and tally sheets.

Minnesota has caucuses coming up on Tuesday, February 25 at 7 p.m.
[Editors note: date has been corrected]

I recently wrote about how Minneapolis and St. Paul could reform the endorsement process and adopt government-sponsored endorsement elections that allow for higher activation and turnout.

One commenter, Pete Barrett, shared his thoughts that city government should not subsidize the part process when there are ranked-choice elections in November. His comment in full:

First, this should NOT be seen as being in favor of caucuses.

The political parties are private organizations. Why are the taxpayers paying for primary elections so they can choose who they will run in the real election? They can choose their candidate however they choose. If you don’t like the DFL choice for office, vote for someone else.

Did you know we are the only democracy that holds primary elections? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, ain’t no one flattering us.

For a long time I heard people lament how few people even bothered to vote in primaries. Now I hear them held up as being “so participatory”. Not that turnout for primaries has increased one bit. Whatever.

Let the parties choose their endorsees for the real election however they like, on their own dime. Don’t like the outcome? Get [involved] next time. I don’t get to choose the officers of my local ‘Merican Legion post, because I’m not a member of that organization. Same deal for the parish council at Our Lady of the Concrete Jungle church. I’m not a parishioner, so I don’t get a choice.

Primaries are a bad idea. We need fewer of them, not more.

I appreciate Pete’s take, and was thinking in the dustbowl of last night how we could design a process that is more accessible, yet is entirely party-run. Here are a few ideas, ranging from dirt cheap to “going to break out the checkbook.”

Ranked Choice Ballot

Potential ranked-choice ballot with unique code to track ballots.

1. Paper ballots for ranked-choice voting

As head of credentials for Minneapolis Ward 3 in 2017, we implemented a rigorous, yet transparent process to track delegates and alternates as they signed in and were upgraded, and we had a balanced method of counting ballots for the tally. I say balanced because we can never remove bias from a system, but we can counteract it. In our case in 2017, we had volunteers from each of the two major campaigns count ballots for each precinct in pairs. If they both agreed on the precinct tally, we had more confidence the numbers were right. In addition, as I remember, both the delegate lists and ballot tallies were shared on publicly viewable Google sheets, which made sure everybody was starting with the same data, and it democratized the process by removing much of the guess work for campaigns about what was happening at convention.

We can take some of these same lessons and apply them to a precinct-level ranked-choice vote.

First, we start with paper ballots that are printed with the name of the precinct and a unique, short alphanumeric code to identify the ballot for tracking. As caucus-goers come in, they sign in and receive a ballot, then cast it into a clear plastic bin that is sealed with a zip-tie until counting.

Leading up to the caucus, the major campaigns for different offices would let the party know who their precinct representatives are and their contact information. These people would carry out the counting of ballots, with a uncommitted party volunteer entering the data on a mobile device that is uploaded to a database being verified by the party. With Google, this could be done with a simple Google form with a logic tree that feeds a Google Sheet that captures the user’s account information to verify that they should be reporting for that precinct. The unique ballot codes allow the paper trail to match up with the digital trail.

At the end of the night, everybody — party, campaigns, and media — should have the same data, and there can be a manual count at a central location the next day if there are technical difficulties with the mobile devices, a manual count with the same process using candidate representatives.

By Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA - Precinct 61, CC BY 2.0,

An Iowa Democratic caucus in 2016. Photo credit: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA – Precinct 61, CC BY 2.0

2. Early caucus voting online

The parties have extensive data on how to contact potential voters. This creates the potential for a two-factor authentication system using phone numbers and email addresses.

For voting early in the caucuses online, the party could create a website where caucus-goers could enter their name and zip code, then authenticate by the contact methods available, email and phone. To increase security, the caucus-goer would be required to authenticate for each method available, which for most people in party databases is both email and phone. For landlines, an automated message would read a code. For mobile phones, one would be texted.

For caucus-goers who don’t have contact information, or mark that theirs is incorrect, a paper ballot mailed would be a last resort. The caucus-goer would verify the mailing address before sending, but this should match the zip code they entered earlier.

One potential issue here is that since the party is administering the process, it does not know what competing parties are doing. If a party member of one party wants to vote online for another party, there is little stopping them. In a government-sponsored election, the voter can only choose one party to vote for, or else the ballot is spoiled.

Reforming for the future

These are just a few brief thoughts, but it’s important that we start the conversation about how we can best represent people in the political process. I know many are weary of caucuses, but some are hesitant to go all-in on primaries. Some argue that in a ranked-choice election, the party should just be a brand. Regardless of your stance, share in the comments where you are right now, and be sure to caucus on Tuesday, March 3 at 7 p.m. so we can start to institute reforms on the local level.

What would your ideal election system be? Have you survived a ten-hour convention? Share your dreams and your nightmares in the comments.

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.