The winner of the Iowa Caucuses still remains a mystery almost three days after the caucuses have ended. With 86% of precincts reporting, Pete Buttigieg has 512 state delegate equivalents (SDEs) while Bernie Sanders is close behind with 488. The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) is under fire after an app meant to report results from individual precincts malfunctioned and new caucus rules caused disorganisation and confusion in many caucus sites. High turnout also frazzled caucus organisers at some precincts, where some sites were attended by as many as 1,000 people.

To better understand the chaos, let’s start with the basics and then work towards what went wrong (and right).

How does the caucus system work?

A caucus is where voters meet to express their candidate preferences. Instead of primary style voting which takes place in a private, enclosed booth, the caucus-goers express their preferences publicly among neighbours in a designated precinct, or caucus site.

Supporters of Biden would stand under this sign (pictured in Glasgow) to indicate their support in the first round.

Step 1: Stand in the corner of your preferred candidate.

This is the first round, or first alignment. This gives participants an initial idea of how the room is spread and also gives supporters time to talk strategy for the next realignment phase.

Step 2: Determine viable and non-viable candidates.

Candidates are non-viable if they receive less than 15% of support in the first round. It takes a little while to do the maths and the counting, especially given how many prominent candidates are running and how some caucus sites welcomed as many as a thousand people.

Caucus-goers deliberate during the realignment phase in the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. The precinct had almost 400 participants while the press observed from the balcony above. Image credit: Cassidy Bringle.

Step 3: Non-viable candidate supporters realign.

This is when it gets crazy. There are many choices for the supporters in limbo without a candidate. Strategic moves come into play too. They could either move to their second choice or try to convince other caucus-goers to come to their side to see if they can gain viability for their candidate. Mostly, the viable candidates have the upper-hand here and they descend amongst those without a candidate to try to get as many people as possible onto their side.

Step 4: Final count.

Now, if there is any group with less than 15% their choice will not be counted. All of the groups are then tallied up and this gives the first glimpse of the leaders.

This is where it begins to get confusing. Each precinct is given a set number of delegates (proportional to how many people are at the caucus, so sites with more people will get a larger share of the 2,107 state delegates up for grabs than smaller ones). Then, the delegates are given in proportion to support. For instance, say one caucus site has 40 delegates. If half of the caucus supporters went for Biden, he would get 20 delegates. If Warren and Sanders both got a fourth of the votes, they would each get 10 delegates.

Now for the outcomes (or lack thereof). Here is a rundown of what went wrong, what sort of went wrong, and, to end on a more positive note, what went right.

What went wrong

The app developed for the Iowa Democratic Party.

The IDP tried to be more efficient in reporting results by having an app specifically for precinct leaders to report final numbers and winners. The result was the complete opposite: the app malfunctioned and precincts then had figure out where and how to report results. Most were reported via phone calls, but the tech mishap has taken the blame for much of the delays. The IDP emphasised that the issues were strictly technologically related and that there were no mischievous hackers at work.

Communication between the Iowa Democratic Party, caucus chairs, caucus-goers.

Quite a few changes were implemented this year. One of which was a reform to the intense realignment process. Previously, there could be multiple stages of realignment but this time around, there were only two rounds of sorting. All those with unviable candidates or undecided were not counted. Voters complained this was not communicated well enough by the precinct leaders and some felt they were given no voice in the process.

What went sort-of-right and sort-of-wrong

Presidential caucus cards and data reporting

In previous caucuses, there was no established paper trail to recount votes. It was either done by counting hands or by slips of paper. It was basically a democratic disaster waiting to happen if results were contested. This year, the IDP made “Presidential caucus cards” where caucus-goers filled out their first choice on one side and if they had to realign, filled out their second choice. The IDP will release the numbers of first and second choices along with the SDEs, which is the number of delegates given proportionally to each candidate and widely considered the determining factor for the winner.

This extra step possibly added to the delay, but also offers more insight into the decision making of Iowa Democrats. A Democratic candidate can have some leverage if they are consistently chosen after realignment. It could be taken as a sign of a consensus builder or someone that could do well in more conservative states. With that said, the extra statistics reported could cause confusion if there is no clear winner, for instance, if one candidate wins the popular vote but not the most delegates.

What went right

Satellite Caucuses

Caucuses have long been criticised for the lack of inclusivity. Because they happen in person and only for one night, it leaves out many who were unable to make the start time, have no transportation, or live away from the state. This year 87 satellite caucuses were created outside the established precincts in an effort to combat those issues. Satellite sites within the state included senior centres and other places with people that cannot travel easily, and some started earlier than the official caucus for those who could not make the official 7 p.m. start time. Many were located in different states for retirees and college students living outside of Iowa. Notably, there were three outside the United States: Paris (France); Tbilisi (Georgia); and Glasgow (UK). This represents a number of important steps towards a more democratic system.

The Iowa Democratic Party has not responded to our request for comment.

This is an ongoing story and will be updated.