This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Amid and in the wake of the The Great Iowa Caucus Disaster of 2020, which saw results delayed for a whole night and day until confusing partial results were released Tuesday afternoon, there emerged, as there always does, a schism on the left. It’s an outright conspiracy, you freaks, yelled Bernie Sanders supporters. It’s mere incompetence, chill out, scoffed wised-up liberals. Why would you attribute to malice what you could to stupidity?
The real question is why anyone would think it has to be one or the other. Asking whether a given electoral catastrophe is due to corruption or incompetence poses a false binary and ignores American history, which even recently is full of examples of the two hopelessly intertwining and fucking everything up.
In 2018, to give an example, there was a real conspiracy to suppress Black voters in the Georgia governor’s election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. When the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013, it paved the way for the reinstatement of discriminatory voting regulations that disproportionately targeted Black voters. There was also mundane incompetence that tamped down voter turnout. Writing for VICE last year, Spencer Mestel described the explicit regulations meant to turn away Black voters and what resulted from what could be generously be read as incompetence:
No single facet of Georgia’s election system is unimpeachable evidence of orchestrated voter suppression—not the provisional ballots, closed polling sites, long lines, rejected absentees, impounded voting machines, digital vulnerabilities, or database glitches.
When combined, though, these problems reflect a slurry of confusion, incompetence, and neglect that has the same effect as wrongdoing and, more importantly, is plausibly deniable, especially when the responsibility for running elections is split between the state and the counties.
Abrams lost the race.
Two years before that, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton essentially tied in the Iowa caucus; Clinton claimed victory. To this day, no one quite knows who won, or what it means to ask who won, or how to answer the question. The opacity over whether Sanders or Clinton won Iowa in 2016, though, was serious enough that the Democratic Party changed, at the Sanders-supporting faction’s insistence, the rules for reporting results for this year’s caucuses. Bumbling bureaucrats helped create that opacity, and so did politically-motivated actors. Sanders lost the race.
The election crisis of 2000, which was eventually decided by a Supreme Court that delivered a partisan verdict from a posture of performative neutrality, involved both bumbling bureaucrats who couldn’t design a functional ballot and politically-motivated actors such as Florida Secretary of State and George W. Bush campaign co-chair Katherine Harris, who put her thumb on the scale for her candidate while theoretically serving in her role as a neutral public servant charged with overseeing a vote recount. Bush won the race.
In all the above cases, corruption and incompetence functioned not as opposed but as complementary explanations. People worked, openly or in secret, against the common good; other people just sucked at their jobs; their efforts intertwined, and their efficacy remains impossible to untangle.
On Monday night and Tuesday morning, when a delay for the Iowa caucus results turned into an overnight postponement and that turned into the promise of an eventual announcement, a theory arose that read something like this: The Democratic establishment, and maybe Mayor Pete himself, schemed with the makers of a laughably broken app to steal the all-important Iowa win away from the revolutionary Bernie Sanders, who was surging in the polls. This conspiracy theory, as Slate’s Tom Scocca pointed out, gives the Democratic Party far too much credit. As he wrote:
Who in the world could sincerely believe the Democratic Party would have had the wherewithal to insert a hidden kill switch inside a hastily thrown together election app? Why embrace the notion of a masterful villainous conspiracy when there was a simpler and more politically meaningful lesson to extract from it all: These people are incompetent!
To sincerely believe in a villainous conspiracy ripped from a B-movie would miss an obvious explanation here, of course, but to dismiss the role of motive would miss something too. Yes, the people atop the Democratic Party are bumbling bureaucrats; they’re also bumbling bureaucrats who, as a mass, don’t want Bernie Sanders to be the nominee. The question of whether incompetence is inflected by corruption isn't about whether the “coding problem” that prevented Shadow Inc.’s app from accurately reporting accurately-tabulated results was the face of a sinister plot; it's more about whether the powers that be would ever have allowed the timely reporting of results to be governed by a hastily thrown-together election app designed on the cheap if their preferred candidate had been in a position to win, or if they had something to lose.
How do you separate out the failures of the secret and untested app from the political agendas of the people who insisted on using it in the first place? How do you trust that party honchos who have been just as anti-Sanders this cycle as they were in 2016 are simply awful at their jobs? How do you decide to ascribe to ineptitude what could be explained by malice, when malice has played a crucial role in so many electoral fiascos? These are uncomfortable questions. There are no comfortable answers.
Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter.