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Does Iowa provide any lessons for Florida?

Florida is no stranger to elections problems. But Floridians shouldn’t let Iowa spook them too much about what could go wrong when it’s time for the Sunshine State to decide.
Caucus goers seated in the section for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hold up their first votes as they are counted at the Knapp Center on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Caucus goers seated in the section for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden hold up their first votes as they are counted at the Knapp Center on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) [ GENE J. PUSKAR | AP ]
Published Feb. 4, 2020

Michael McDonald picked an interesting year to fly to Iowa to watch the caucuses up close.

The University of Florida political scientist professor visited an Iowa City caucus site as Democratic voters turned out to pick their presidential candidate Monday. Later, he watched from his hotel room as delayed results led to finger-pointing and conspiracy theories on social media.

Tuesday’s post-mortem dwelled on a key app that wasn’t tested sufficiently, a lack of training of precinct volunteers, and more complex reporting requirements than previous election cycles.

A key takeaway for Floridians watching Iowa’s fiasco?

“Let’s be glad in Florida we have professional election administrators running primaries and not party volunteers running a caucus,” McDonald said.

While Iowa caucuses, run by the state’s Democratic Party, are a “once-every-four-years phenomenon,” McDonald said, Florida county election officials are more experienced at handling elections.

That includes training paid temporary poll workers, rather than party volunteers, and having a better understanding of how to roll out contingency plans, new procedures and technology, he said.

Florida is no stranger to elections problems, ranging from delays in reporting results to malfunctioning equipment to hard-to-read ballots. But elections experts cautioned against drawing too many lessons from Iowa’s Democratic caucuses for Florida’s upcoming primaries, given the vast disparities between the two systems.

“If anything, Iowa can learn from Florida and having a little patience and letting this play out,” McDonald said.

More than 100 people attended the Iowa caucus held Monday in St. Petersburg. It did not experience any technological difficulties, said Donna Winter, the caucus chairwoman. The location, at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, was one of several satellite caucuses held in states outside of Iowa for the first time this year for Iowans who spend their winters elsewhere.

Winter said she submitted the results of their caucus — a win for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — via the much-maligned app without problems. It’s worth noting, however, that the St. Petersburg caucus ended before voting commenced in Iowa, so traffic on the app was far from the peak. It is also not clear if the results were received by the state party.

Iowa’s caucuses were the opening salvo of the 2020 presidential election season, eagerly anticipated to help winnow down a crowded Democratic field. The delay in reporting results may limit its influence this year.

No matter how severe, however, the Hawkeye State’s woes aren’t an omen for the 2020 election season, experts say.

“I’d caution against drawing lessons about how elections are administered across the state or within the counties,” said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

One thing that did trouble McDonald was how quick politicians and others were to begin questioning the integrity of the voting system.

“That’s a real threat we have here to our democracy that there are incentives for losing candidates or people with particular agendas to try to undermine faith in our democracy,” McDonald said, saying that candidate Joe Biden’s camp was “making hints that you can’t trust the results.”

McDonald said he hadn’t seen any problems at the caucus he attended. It wasn’t until later that he began hearing about issues. He said it was good that Iowa had a paper trail it could turn to to check results.

Craig Latimer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, said county elections officials in Florida have contingencies set up if things go wrong during voting. He said every poll worker is trained, adding that many are experienced workers who have participated in multiple elections.

Latimer, who is president-elect of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, said when his county rolls out new technology, it does so deliberately and only after testing and training. For instance, when Hillsborough began using new electronic pollbooks, it started by using them in only 10 percent of polling sites during a primary election, then in 20 percent of polling sites during a general election, he said.

Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, said his agency has a technical call center that poll workers can use if they are having trouble with technology, and all poll workers are trained for at least four hours.

“We have a team of people back here ready to troubleshoot if there is a problem,” Chase said.

Times Political Editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

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