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So I was at a caucus where they had some problems

I want to see how this ends. Kris is waiting because she understood the instructions to mean that after the results of the second realignment were announced, everyone at the caucus would have to stick around and vote for delegates. Neither of us is yet aware of the wretched app whose ultimate failure would obscure Iowa’s overall results and keep the entire nation in suspense.

Perhaps had we known, we would have left like the 459-odd caucusgoers who gave up before us.

This is one of those stories whose meaning changes in the middle. At the beginning I am joyous and young, here observing democracy in action. I have a lemonade. (If you know how a story ends in advance, you know what details are important.)

I did not realize what story I was telling until it was 9:46 p.m. and we still had not realigned. And then it was 10:11 p.m., and we had not realigned. At the end it is 11:36 p.m., and they are turning off the overhead projector, and we are being asked to exit the auditorium because the custodial staff has a job to do.

Still, Precinct 3-1/11 is sitting here without an official vote tally because people simply turned in their presidential preference cards (Boo the cards! Boo the app!) without waiting to see whether their second choices were viable, and left. Precinct 3-1/11 has something that is almost like an official vote tally, but there keep being sources of confusion, all to do with the cursed preference cards, which people did write on and hand in, whether or not they were supposed to, and now it is not clear whether everyone would be happy with the result, but it is too late to change it.

Presidential preference cards! Their names are dust in the mouth. They are most assuredly difficult to fill out and difficult to count, and they are no doubt also loathsome in other ways (too thick, too sticky).

Turn the clock back to 7 p.m. I am entering this auditorium for the first time. I sit in the row of observers and press. Everyone trickles in and sits with their preference section: Yang Gang, the Steyerites, Team Pete and Team Bernie, Teams Amy, Warren and Biden.

We are just getting started, comparatively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like horrible squirrel-human hybrids. The temporary secretary and temporary chair who have been trained and certified to run this precinct’s caucus are both successfully elected permanent secretary and permanent chair. Everything seems to be going swimmingly. There’s a PowerPoint.

“Key 2020 Caucus Procedural Changes,” a slide says. “Streamlined & Transparent Alignment Process. Paper Trail: Presidential Preference Card.” (PRESIDENTIAL PREFERENCE CARD, FROM HELL’S HEART I SPIT MY LAST BREATH AT THEE.)

DO NOT WRITE ANYTHING ON THE CARDS UNLESS I INSTRUCT YOU TO DO SO, warns the newly elected chair, Michael Cothard. They are going to be “very accurate useful records of this event.”

How young we were, those scant few hours ago.

Next it is time for the precinct captains to speak on their candidates’ behalf for 60 seconds. Biden is alphabetically first, and a professor whose accent suggests he hails originally-ish from London ticks off the reasons Biden is the best choice. (“He can win.”)

Bernie goes next because, as our new chair, Michael, suddenly remembers, E comes before I — although, if we are doing this by first name, Amy should probably have been first.

There are 477 people here, in this room, right now. (They will shortly discover there are 479, and this will consume more time.) There are nine delegates to distribute. Seventy-two votes is the threshold of viability. “Undecided” does count — if 72 people are undecided, they will lock in to send an undecided candidate, something Michael says “happened once in, like, the ’80s.”

The time comes for voters to sort themselves into their first preferences. Fifteen minutes pass. A child runs around (aligning? realigning?). DO NOT WRITE ON YOUR CARDS YET.

Everyone gets head-counted. Bernie Sanders is viable at 125. Warren is viable with 112. Klobuchar is viable with 77. Not currently viable: Joe Biden, 54. Andrew Yang, 49. Pete, 50. Undecided, 2. Steyer, 11. This adds up to 480 and not 479, but none of these numbers is within one of viability, so it seems okay to proceed to the next round. There is a voice vote to do this.

But what, exactly, is happening now? I am not sure when people start to leave, only that they do. Michael takes the microphone to explain that people do not have to realign even if their candidate is not viable and can check the box indicating they are not realigning. Even more people take this as permission to write on the cards, hand in a ballot and leave.

“DO NOT WRITE ON THIS CARD UNTIL I INSTRUCT YOU TO FROM THE STAGE,” Michael reminds everyone. “You will have to come up here and do paperwork.” He explains that Iowa is doing this to make the process look more legitimate to other states. It is 11:05 p.m., and there are a handful of people left, all frantically doing paperwork and trying not to hear what the other states have to say about tonight’s process.

The auditorium is much nearer to empty when Michael announces the outcomes: 146 Bernie, 138 Warren, 93 Klobuchar. No other candidates met the viability threshold.

It is 11:30 p.m. Once the selection was over, everyone was supposed to vote on delegates, but somehow, through the wiliness of the cards, this has managed to be simultaneously over and not over. (This is where most writers would be tempted to draw a parallel to democracy as a whole, but I, you see, am resisting.)

I went to the Iowa caucuses because I love democracy — well, I’m a fan of its earlier work — and I was excited to see it in action. What I saw instead was people fighting a valiant fight against voter preference cards, and the clock, and losing.

There is no more powerful force than someone with a bright idea for a new way things should go who does not have to live with the consequences. Someone in an office somewhere devises a form or an app, and then on the ground people struggle and strain over a confusingly worded directive, and it makes the difference between receiving a benefit or not, or having your voice heard or not, or being the room where the future of America gets decided.

“There’s certainly room for debate as to whether this is the best way to go forward,” Michael admitted to Ames Precinct 3-1/11. And then he sent the votes off.

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