Anxiously following one of the tightest races in Iowa Caucus history early Wednesday, Carolyn Tallett said she couldn’t bring herself to go to bed before a winner was announced.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, I sure wish they would get these results final,’” said Tallett, 70, who serves on the central committee for the Clinton County Republicans. “I was wondering what was holding it up.”
About that time, while changing into her pajamas and watching CNN, Tallett heard her cell phone in the kitchen. It was a Republican Party representative trying to track down Clinton County’s Caucus results so the state could declare a winner.
Tallett threw her suit coat on over her pajamas and drove to the county chairwoman’s house.
“She’s a sound sleeper, and I was running through her yard banging on her doors and ringing her door bells,” Tallett said.
Edith Pfeffer, chairwoman of Clinton County’s Republican Central Committee, eventually came to the door a bit dazed and provided – she says for the second time – the numbers needed to declare Mitt Romney winner of the Iowa Caucus by a mere eight votes.
But the communication gaffe that sent a 70-year-old woman scampering through her neighbor’s yard around 1 a.m. while the nation awaited results in the highly-touted first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses exemplifies some of the concerns that linger the morning after.
Some Republicans have expressed concern about the accuracy of the counting process, and some voters blogged, Tweeted and posted Facebook updates about Democrats infiltrating their precinct.
Several caucus-goers said they didn’t get to participate as planned because they showed up shortly after 7 p.m. – some because they went to their voting location instead of their caucus site – only to find the doors locked.
Linn County Republican Party officials said they received quite a few calls from upset would-be caucus-goers who didn’t make it into their precinct under the 7 p.m. deadline and were kept out. But Linn County Caucus Chairman Eric Rosenthal stressed that it was up to individual precinct leaders to decide how strictly to follow the 7 p.m. start time.
“People were upset, and we got a lot of calls,” he said. “But when you’re late, you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the court, and this time the court was your neighbors.”
Most caucus sites did allow late-comers to enter after 7 p.m., and Rosenthal said some precincts even started a few minutes late because so many people wanted to register as Republicans at the door.
“I found myself in that final hour running here and there and photo copying registration forms and distributing them to larger precincts,” he said. “I went to at least four sites in the closing minutes before 7 p.m.”
Rosenthal said thousands of Linn County residents registered Republican Tuesday, and he assumes many of them were Democrats wanting to participate in this year’s hotly-contested Caucus.
“I think there is a lot of interest, and we adopted the notion that we are going to be very open about this,” he said. “I focus on it being a neighborhood decision.”
Although plenty of voters walked away from Tuesday’s caucus questioning the accuracy of the final tally that put Romney ahead by only eight votes, Rosenthal stressed that the caucus process, by its nature, is not an exact science.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Romney won or Santorum lost because it’s a straw poll and it’s not precise,” he said. “It winnows the field.”
The Iowa Caucus is not meant to pick a winner as much as it identifies losers, according to Rosenthal. Although Tuesday’s race was so close that the miscommunication out of Clinton County delayed the declaration of a winner, Rosenthal said, any attempt to make the process more precise might destroy its unique flavor.
“We don’t primary people, we caucus,” he said. “We offer our opinion, and that’s what it is – our opinion.”
Adding oversight to the Caucus counting process and taking steps to verify the votes would require money and a significant change in the now grass-roots system.
“This is neighborhood democracy in action, and we lose that if we abandon the caucus process,” Rosenthal said.
State officials agreed but said they have taken some extra safeguards to make sure there are no obvious gaffes.
“Our reporting system has some redundancies built in so we could catch anything unusual,” said Nicole Sizemore, assistant communications director for the Iowa Republicans. “We called all the counties and precincts to make sure the numbers were accurate.”
Sizemore said she’s unclear where the communication breakdown occurred with Clinton County. But Tallett said Clinton County called in the results even though they were nowhere to be found when it counted.
“I don’t know if it was a computer glitch or what,” she said.
Regardless, Tallett said, the gaffe led to an interesting night – or morning – that had the women bantering with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper on CNN and earning the label of giving the “best live phone interview ever.”
“They seemed to have a lot of fun with it,” Tallett said of the CNN personalities. “I think they were just wanting to visit and have some relief.”
Their story might have been more funny because they were so tired from all the night’s events, she said.
“Edith was dazed,” Tallett said. “At first she couldn’t understand why she saw me running through her yard in my red coat. She didn’t know what was happening.”
It took the women a minute to shuffle through papers and find the right numbers. But they did and promptly called them into the state.
“We all knew the importance of this vote,” Tallett said.
Listen to National Public Radio interview with Carolyn Tallet, president of the Clinton County Republican Women’s Club, and Edith Pfeffer, chairwoman of the Clinton County Republican Central Committee