On the night of February 3, 2020, Democratic voters across the United States looked to Iowa to set the stage for the 2020 Democratic primaries. Iowa has the unique position of being first in the entire primary process, though it does not hold a standard primary election. Instead, a caucus is held: a multi-round election in which voters must physically group together based on which candidate they support. After the initial count is taken, candidate groups that do not meet a 15% threshold are allowed to realign to viable candidates, and supporters of those candidates are encouraged to persuade undecided people to join their group. After this realignment process, the final count is taken, and each candidate’s vote count is put through a mathematical formula by the precinct captain to convert votes to State Delegate Equivalents, or SDEs, per candidate. These SDEs are used to determine the final distribution of national delegates for the state.
The results were expected late that same night. People began to notice something had gone wrong, however, when only 2% of precincts had reported their results after several hours. Reports began to surface about malfunctions with the mobile app designed to report the precinct results to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP). The app, developed by private company Shadow Inc., was overloaded by the overwhelming traffic generated by the precincts reporting their data all at once. Some observers also showed concern with Shadow Inc.’s connections to former Hillary Clinton staffers and the 2020 Pete Buttegieg campaign. This, along with Buttegieg declaring victory based on 2% of precincts, led to suspicions about the Buttegieg campaign collaborating with the IDP to intentionally delay the release of the results in order to give Buttegieg a larger window of positive media coverage.
This was amplified by the next release of results: results from 62% of precincts were released, still displaying Buttegieg leading Sanders. The Sanders campaign, however, had collected the results of each precinct independently of the IDP, and claimed that 60% of their results had Sanders in a narrow lead over Buttegieg.
After most of the results were released, it became clear that, for a combination of reasons, several precincts had been miscounted and SDEs had been misallocated. In response to this discovery, the Sanders campaign declared victory based on both popular vote and their own SDE count based on districts they corrected. With two candidates declaring victory, DNC national chair Tom Perez stepped in to attempt to sort out the problem. He called for a recanvass, essentially a recount of the entire process, though the IDP denied his request. To add to the controversy, an excerpt from an IDP email circulated, stating “The incorrect math on the Caucus Math Worksheets must not be changed to ensure the integrity of the process.” On February 12, the Iowa Democratic Party’s lead chairman officially resigned.
The only reason that the caucus process was transparent enough to detect the errors is due to the Sanders campaign’s push for more transparency after the close race in Iowa in 2016. This means that the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus may not be a major step toward democratic erosion, but instead it might have simply revealed a facet of democracy that had secretly eroded long ago, only now brought to light.
Regardless, the events in the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus are indicative of democratic erosion in the United States. At its core, the crisis over miscounted districts is directly in opposition to the definition of democracy laid out in Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy, in which he states that “the key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.”  By refusing to fix the miscounted districts, an unknown number of voters have been disenfranchised, thus eliminating their ability to be regarded as political equals to their opponents. Furthermore, In The Civic Culture by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, they argue that a major facet of democracy is that voters place their trust in the political elites to rule in a manner that is fair and cooperative . The involvement of the Buttegieg campaign in funding Shadow, Inc. destroys the trust placed in the Iowa Democratic Party to hold fair elections, thus violating this principle. It could also be argued that Buttegieg’s declaration of victory before the results had come in was in violation of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concept of the norm of “forbearance”, in which it is accepted that politicians do not necessarily exercise all of their power, even if legal. It’s an accepted norm that people should typically declare victory once there is evidence to back up that claim, so Buttegieg’s declaration of victory was in violation of the principle of forbearance. 
- Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Almond, Gabriel & Verba, Sidney. 1963. The Civic Culture Book. SAGE Publications.
- Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1.