Coin Flipping Out

For the many of us who don't live in a state that uses the caucus system, the revelation that coin flips were used to determine certain aspects of the Iowa caucus was shocking. Accusations flourished about unfair practices, and more than once on Facebook, I saw people finishing up their posts with "Welcome To Democracy."

Well, yeah. Welcome to the caucus system at least. No one said it was the best system.

In fact, the caucus system, especially the Democratic Party caucus system, is quite complicated. Votes are weighted according to how a precinct has participated in the past, participants sometimes have to pick multiple candidates, and in rare cases, ties are decided by a coin flip, or picking a name out of a hat.

Who knew Two Face ran the Iowa caucus?

Who knew Two Face ran the Iowa caucus?

And before you think this is something the DNC created to give the edge to Secretary Clinton, this has been the reported rule in the Iowa caucuses for several years, including in 2008, when President Obama won the Iowa caucus

What did these coin flips even decide? The delegates who would represent Iowa at the Democratic National Convention in Iowa? Not even close. In the first caucus, the one all of America just watched, candidates are competing for county delegates who will then go to the state level where delegates will be chosen to represent Iowa at the Democratic National Convention.

Delegates at the precinct level are split up by support, so it's not a "winner-take-all" system at most precincts. In one precinct that Clinton won by a coin flip, the formula determining delegate allocations determined that Clinton won 4 delegates from the precinct and Sanders won 3. That left one delegate unassigned, and because it was so close, the last delegate was decided with a coin flip. But this one delegate that was decided by a coin flip is not the equivalent of a state delegate.

But isn't it weird that there were only six coin flips and Clinton won all of them? 

Accurate representation of Iowa caucus coin flips

Accurate representation of Iowa caucus coin flips

No, that's not weird, because that's not necessarily true. In fact, there are reports of at least a dozen coin flips in Iowa, and it's reported that Senator Sanders won "at least a handful," according to one Iowa Democratic Party official. [4] In fact, in terms of games of chance that were registered through the DNC mobile app, Sanders won six of seven, meaning that there were a lot more coin flips than the ones that have been reported.

The vote in Iowa was close, and the awarding of county and precinct delegates did come down to coin flips. But it's not true to say that Clinton won every coin flip, it's not true to say that she was awarded state delegates based on those coin flips, and it's not true to say that those coin flips were the difference between Clinton winning and Sanders winning. The delegate math just doesn't work out. It would take a lot more than six coin flips to give Clinton four state delegate equivalents.

That doesn't mean the Iowa caucuses are perfect. In fact, I've been on record saying that they're not the best system. But the existence of coin flips in a primary that doesn't resemble the rest of our nation's primaries doesn't mean that our democracy is going down the toilet. It just means that maybe we should stop placing so much weight on Iowa.

First Published: February 5, 2016