Retired educator and world traveler Mark Nicoll-Johnson usually saves his sardonic wit for a close circle of friends. We managed to snag this sample from one of his most recent missives.
Now that the Iowa caucuses have melted down, American voters are justly concerned about how technological shortcuts may compromise future electoral contests. New Hampshire, next in line, is probably too late to salvage. Who knows how Democrats in the Granite State might surprise the nation?
Nevada, on the other hand, has pledged not to use the same cheap app employed by Iowa Democrats. Good for them. Interestingly, however, the Iowans may have an old idea that might be right for the times in which we find ourselves, and something Nevadans should consider.
As we all have learned in recent days, the Iowa caucuses are quite complex, involving as they do many rounds of choosing and weighing. In former times, these choices were concretely represented by a simple and regionally appropriate system of ballot casting little known or understood outside the state: the Corncob Tally.
Caucusing Iowans were individually allotted six corncobs, which they were free to distribute among their candidates of choice. Ideally, in the first selection round, voters would deposit two cobs in a bin designated for their first choice, and one in a bin for their second place candidate.
The first round complete, the contents of the bins in each precinct would be weighed to determine which candidates would be eligible for the second selection round in each precinct. After each round, the results (i.e. the weight—literally—of the votes in each round) would be communicated (by telephone, teletype, telegraph—whatever was available) to the state Democratic Central Committee where the final result would be tabulated.
Although the system appears quite simple, in practice the results were quite nuanced, and caucusing Iowans found themselves having to make many tactical choices. For example, nothing prevented an individual from casting all six corncobs for one candidate in the first round. This, however, would prevent participation in the second, and often more critical, round. As one might imagine, many other unorthodox strategies may or may not have been attempted in caucuses past.
True, weighing the results proved controversial over the years, but Iowans came to agree (grudgingly in some cases) that statistically one corncob weighed about the same as any other, and that random distribution of the cobs obviated the chances for rigging outcomes.
It is well understood by now that this year Iowa Democrats chose not to use their traditional method of caucusing and reporting. Certainly, there are many surplus corncobs in Iowa that might have been set aside for this year’s Democratic Caucus. The populations of Iowa and Nevada are roughly the same. There’s plenty of time to ship those corncobs from the silos of the Hawkeye State to Carson City for statewide distribution in time for the Nevada primary.
Finally, the Corncob Tally, appealing as it may be, is not a good alternative for California voters primarily because of the state’s agricultural diversity. While Stanislaus County, for example, produces millions of bushels of corn, privileging the cob over, say, almonds, would result in wounded pride at best and at worst divisive litigation. And that’s just in one county.
Californians should stick to their own traditional modes of tallying primary votes. What could possibly go wrong?
Mark, I love your prospective on this!