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Opinion The time has come to kill the Iowa caucuses

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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The best thing about the 2020 Iowa caucuses is that it may be the end of the Iowa caucuses.

In fact, if we take the long view, we should be celebrating the debacle that occurred Monday night. As a longtime venomous critic of the Iowa caucuses, I couldn’t be happier.

To catch you up: Someone thought it was a good idea to have workers at each caucus report in their results on a brand-new app that hadn’t been tested, with the predictable result that the whole thing melted down. Then they couldn’t get through on the phone either, and now we still don’t know who won.

Iowa caucuses 2020 live updates

Even the idea of winning was made more complex this year, as the state party decided to report three sets of results: the initial vote totals, the final vote totals (after supporters of candidates who failed to reach 15 percent in each caucus were reallocated) and the winners of delegates to the state convention, which is the “real” result.

About that 15 percent rule: If you tuned in to cable news and watched correspondents running around middle school gyms explaining that one candidate’s supporters didn’t reach the threshold of viability and so had to find another candidate, you probably asked, “What’s the point of that?”

It’s a good question. Why on earth should a candidate who gets 14 percent of the vote in a given precinct get zero votes when the results are tabulated? How is that supposed to be democratic?

David Axelrod, senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, says the presidential nominating process is flawed but should not change too much. (Video: Ben Derico/The Washington Post, Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg/The Washington Post)

In the short run, this debacle will have the positive effect of keeping the press from immediately proclaiming one person to be the winner and everyone else to be losers, dramatically shifting the race based on the outcome of a low-turnout event run under absurd rules in an unrepresentative state. We’ll find out who won Iowa eventually, but the impact of that victory will be significantly attenuated, which is a good thing. It’ll still be big news, but it won’t be transformative in the way it often is.

To be clear, if you care at all about the fairness of this process, you should be glad about that however your favorite candidate is affected, whether it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (probably) being denied headlines celebrating his victory or Joe Biden (probably) avoiding headlines skewering his poor showing. If your candidate has what it takes, they’ll win without Iowa distorting our view of what the whole Democratic electorate wants.

What happened in Iowa? Discuss the chaos with Post Opinions columnists.

And if we’re really lucky, this might be the occasion for some significant reform. The absolute minimum that should be done is for Iowa to switch from a caucus to a primary, in which — and see if you can follow along here — voters cast ballots, either at a polling place or mailing them in from home, and then the person with the most votes wins. Imagine that!

What would be even better is if we finally took the opportunity to end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. Yes, it’s literally written into state law (the same is true in New Hampshire), but as Michael Tomasky suggested, you could solve that problem with a little hardball, such as punishing candidates if they campaign more than a small number of days there. The goal would be to turn Iowa, whenever it happens, into just another contest and not the be-all, end-all that it is now.

We have to release ourselves from the tyranny of this state and its stubborn voters. Let me speak for those of us in the other 49: We’re pretty sick and tired of you Iowans telling us how it’s so important that you have this privilege for all eternity because you “take it so seriously.” If you took it seriously, you wouldn’t use this insane voting process. And maybe more than 16 percent of you would actually turn out to vote, which is what turnout was in 2016 and probably about what it was on Monday.

Fortunately, lots of people seem to be realizing that the Iowa caucuses are irredeemable. This in particular stood out:

If one thing was certain from Monday's debacle, Iowa had just signed its death warrant as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said.
“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Yepsen said.

It is hard to overstate how shocking it is to hear that coming from Yepsen, who for a couple of decades was the most influential political reporter in Iowa. David Yepsen announcing the death of the Iowa caucuses is like John Madden announcing the death of football.

But three years from now, the Republican and Democratic parties in Iowa will tell us that they’ve worked out all the kinks, everything is fine and we can proceed with the caucuses just like usual, with those supposedly civic-minded and well-informed Iowa voters ready to tell the rest of us who our president ought to be.

Don’t let them get away with it. No one state deserves the status Iowa took for itself, and it has shown it can’t manage it. The country needs to take control of the election out of Iowa’s hands.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The Iowa caucuses are a crime against democracy

Karen Tumulty: The most important Iowa result is in. Democrats should worry.

Jennifer Rubin: The upside of the Iowa fiasco

Jennifer Rubin: Why Iowa is so complicated

Alexandra Petri: So I was at a caucus where they had some problems