WASHINGTON - It took Iowa Republicans 16 days to decide they couldn't tell for sure who won the Iowa caucuses, despite their earlier announcement that Mitt Romney had narrowly won. The non-conclusion highlights the potential pitfalls with party-run presidential nominating events.
The final, certified results announced Thursday in Des Moines by Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn had Rick Santorum 34 votes ahead of Mitt Romney. But Strawn said the party cannot declare a winner because the results are incomplete — eight of the state's 1,774 precincts did not report their certified totals by Wednesday's 5 p.m. deadline.
Strawn had announced hours after the Jan. 3 caucuses concluded that Romney had won by eight votes. Most news organizations, including The Associated Press, relied on that party announcement, since the results were not officially collected by the state, while waiting final party certification of the vote.
"This is almost an entirely volunteer, grass-roots driven process," Strawn said. He congratulated Santorum and Romney "on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history."
Presidential nominating events for both Republicans and Democrats are a mix of party-run caucuses and primaries — like those held in Iowa on Jan. 3 and South Carolina on Saturday — and officially sanctioned state primaries — like those in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 and Florida on Jan. 31.
The main difference is that with state-run events, you always get a winner, even if it takes multiple recounts and court battles. Local election officials are required by law to meet certification deadlines, and if a race is really close, the law spells out the recount rules that ultimately determine how the winner is decided.
Twenty states have mandatory recount laws for state elections, if the final difference between the top two candidates falls within a certain margin. Other states, like Iowa, spell out the conditions under which a candidate can request a recount, how the recount will be carried out, and who will pick up the tab.
For the Iowa caucuses, however, state party officials had a certification form and a deadline, but no recount procedure.
The AP collects votes counted by counties in state-run primaries and general elections. It also collects votes in party-run caucuses and primaries, but those don't fall under state election laws setting out rules and regulations for all aspects of the vote count.
Rick Grote, a member of the Franklin County GOP central committee, was site chair for seven precincts that met at a high school in Hampton, including one of the missing eight. He said the chair of that precinct apparently failed to send the form certifying the vote count to the state party.
Lee County GOP Chairman Don Lucas, who had four of the noncertified precincts in his county, said he believes supporters of a candidate — he's not sure which — took the certification form to report to the candidate how the candidate did and never brought it back.
Cerro Gordo County GOP Chairman John Rowe said he's certain he mailed in the paperwork for the noncertified precinct in his county.
"It's being reported that some of these votes are lost. The votes aren't lost," Rowe said. "We've got the tally sheets. They just don't have the certified copy signed by the precinct chair and secretary. It's not an accurate representation that these votes were lost or misplaced or mishandled."
Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar said if Iowa wants to retain its status as the nation's first presidential nominating event, both parties need to clean up their vote-counting acts.
"There's plenty of room for improvement in the way that votes are collected and counted," Edgar said. "Given the millions of dollars the candidates invest in Iowa and the importance the state has assumed in choosing nominees, Republican and Democratic leaders alike owe it to Iowans and the nation to run a transparent process and provide a careful, accurate count."
Strawn defended the count, arguing that one of the real strengths of the caucuses is that they are run by volunteers and activists, rather than state and local election officials.
"There's no more transparent process in electoral politics," he said.
Strawn cited several reasons for the lack of certified results, including one county chairman who said the forms had been mailed when they had not been. Another chairman left for vacation promising to send in the forms, but they didn't arrive by the deadline.
Unofficial election night results from the eight precincts, gathered by the party and reported that night by news organizations, including the AP, gave Santorum 81 votes and Romney 46. If those results had been certified to state party officials by Wednesday's deadline, Santorum's lead in the final tally would have been 69 votes.
But history won't be able to record a winner, because those final eight certification forms were never delivered to party headquarters.
That didn't stop Santorum from claiming victory. He fired off a fundraising email that said "the incredible news" makes the score for Romney and himself 1-1. Romney followed Iowa with a strong win in New Hampshire.
Romney called the Iowa results a "virtual tie" and in a written statement praised Santorum's "strong performance."
The certified results: Santorum with 29,839 votes and Romney at 29,805, a difference of 34. Ron Paul finished third with 26,036. Newt Gingrich finished fourth with 16,163 votes. Turnout for the caucuses was 121,503.
The Associated Press projected based on election night results that Romney would end up with 13 delegates and Santorum 12. With the release of the certified tally, the AP is withdrawing one delegate from Romney's projected total and leaving it unallocated.
Associated Press reporters Mike Glover and Ryan Foley contributed to this report.