The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Torched sheds and ‘snap’ votes: The Iowa caucuses have been a hot mess for a century

Papers cover the floor near boxes of voter registration forms inside an auxiliary Iowa Democratic Party office in Des Moines on Feb. 4. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

In politics, new chaos often obscures old chaos.

For instance, the meltdown in Iowa.

The pundit class, before boarding flights Tuesday from Des Moines to New Hampshire, was bewildered by the Iowa Democratic Party’s failure to report results — any results — in its presidential caucuses.

But the Iowa caucuses have been a hot mess for more than a century. Adopted from the moment Iowa entered the union in 1846, the caucuses instantly became riddled with drama by inept and corrupt party leaders.

Because caucuses, unlike primaries, had to be held at set hours so that town citizens could appear and organize themselves in support of candidates, there was no shortage of high jinks to rig the process.

While Iowa’s 2020 caucuses were a symbolic hot mess, in the late 1800s, there were actual hot messes.

In a 1948 article in “The Annals of Iowa,” a state historical journal, Emory H. English wrote:

A typical ruse to attract voters from a regularly called party caucus was to organize a competing event. In a north Iowa county the “fortunate” burning of an old shed in the outskirts of a small town at exactly the advertised hour of the holding of the caucus attracted nine-tenths of the people of the village, including members of the volunteer fire department. In the meantime, those in the “know” assembled at the caucus, the hour having been fixed, selected a “slate” of delegates without opposition and adjourned.


Torching sheds was the most extreme form of tomfoolery. There were other tactics, such as “packing” caucuses with citizens who weren’t yet supporters of the favored candidate but suddenly became so after certain favors and/or dollars were exchanged.

Then there were “snap” caucuses. Think of these like a pop-up restaurant. One moment, an empty building. The next moment, a caucus! On caucus day, voters not in the know would have to stumble around trying to predict where a caucus might suddenly pop up.

“Citizens were outspoken in condemnation of the caucus,” English wrote, “and newspapers were filled with recitals of its iniquities.”

By the turn of the century, political leaders from opposing parties grew weary of the shenanigans and more or less began begging for ballot systems — not in tweet storms, but by writing letters to their local newspapers.

“I know of no law so much needed as a good state primary law,” Quincy A. Willis, the state’s deputy treasurer wrote. Polk County Sheriff J.C. Loper wrote, “I would like to see a primary law which would give all men equal chances in politics and make it possible for every voter to cast his vote as he pleases and have it counted honestly.”

Legislators passed such a law in 1907, but there was a catch: It only applied to elections where the candidates were elected by a direct popular vote. That excluded the presidency and the electoral college.

In 1913, the law was amended to include elections that involved selecting delegates for national elections. Game on.

In 1916, Iowa held its first primary. It was a bust.

“None of the major presidential candidates entered the primary and less than one-third of the eligible electorate voted,” according to a 1983 article in “The Annals of Iowa.”

The boondoggle cost the state $122,000, which was big bucks back then. Gov. George W. Clarke had been in favor of the primary system but changed his mind following the primary’s epic failure, calling the whole thing “a farce.” He asked the state General Assembly to abolish the primary system in its entirety, but only the section on presidential elections passed.

Clarke died in 1936 and is therefore not able to come up with a concise one-word description of what unfolded last night in Iowa.

Twitter had ideas, though.

The top trending topic on Tuesday: “#IowaCaucusDisaster.”

Read more Retropolis:

Losing Iowa doesn’t always spell disaster — just ask Bill Clinton or Donald Trump

The last time the Democratic field was so crowded, a peanut farmer won the White House

‘His Accidency’: The first president to die in office and the constitutional confusion that followed

‘Kill the beast’: The impeachment trial that nearly took down a president 150 years ago