Avalanche of issues takes out Iowa plan for high-tech caucus
DES MOINES, Iowa – What went wrong with the Iowa Democratic Party’s high-tech plan to speed up the reporting of caucus night results? Pretty much everything.
A little-known startup company was picked by party leaders to develop a mobile app for reporting unofficial results, with key details such as the name of the firm kept confidential. While security experts tested the program, many of the people who needed to use it at 1,678 precinct locations across Iowa had little to no training. And a “coding issue” within the app muddied the results, prompting party officials to halt reporting and move to a back-up system to verify the counts.
When it came time to launch the app on Monday night, there was widespread confusion and frustration. It's similar to the sort of chaos election security experts had been warning about. But while much of the attention has been on foreign interference like Russia's effort four years ago, the problems in Iowa highlighted how technical errors can be just as serious. It also underscored the risk of relying on voting technologies that election integrity advocates consider unreliable.
“If I were prone to Twitter, I would use the hashtag #IToldYouSo,” said University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas W. Jones, an election security expert. “It looks like the worst-case scenario happened.”
Jones, a voting security consultant and co-author of “Broken Ballots,” had warned before the caucuses that the Iowa Democratic Party’s plan to deploy the unproven app during the high-stakes event was risky and had been undermined by excessive secrecy and a lack of public confidence in its ability.
Unlike the November election and state primaries administered by state and local election officials, the Iowa caucus was administered by the Iowa Democratic Party. On Tuesday, Nevada Democrats said they would not be using the same app or vendor for their Feb. 22 caucuses, vowing not to have the same problems.
While the app was available to caucus organizers for downloading on their smartphones a few days earlier, some waited until Monday to do so and encountered difficulties in following the instructions or received error messages. The state party had said previously it was going to delay deploying the app to reduce the risk that a hacker might target it, a decision in favor of security but creating little space for error.
“A lot of people had difficulty downloading it and were not happy when they did the test on it,” said Ruth Thompson, who chaired a precinct at Lincoln High School in Des Moines. “We came to a consensus not to use it.”
After hearing reports of long delays in answering the phone at state headquarters, Thompson and other veteran caucusgoers at her site used calculators to determine the delegate allocation and then texted a photo of the results to Polk County Democratic Party officials, who drove it to state party headquarters.
Although the app was the “preferred method” for reporting results, the party did have a phone line available for caucus organizers to report results. But that quickly became overwhelmed, with some caucus organizers reporting they were on hold for over an hour before they were able to speak with someone.
The reporting problems were exacerbated by a new requirement that organizers from each site gather and submit information to make the process more transparent. For the first time, each precinct collected data on the number of supporters for each candidate at the beginning of the night and then after supporters of non-viable candidates realigned to new groups.
Party officials defended their decision to delay the release of the results, saying they preferred to have accuracy over speed. But before Monday's caucuses, they had touted the app's automated ability to calculate delegates and report results as an improvement over the complicated math and legions of phone calls that the system has long relied upon.
State party officials had said they worked closely with the Democratic National Committee's cybersecurity team to review security protocols. State party officials had downplayed the potential for problems by noting that counting paper backups would eventually provide an accurate tally, which is what the party was working to do Tuesday.
Microsoft had developed a similar app that was successfully used by both parties in 2016, but this cycle Democrats turned to a well-connected but little-known startup.
In a Twitter post Tuesday, Shadow Inc. acknowledged after months of confidentiality that it was the firm hired to build the app and apologized for its failure. The firm includes veterans of previous Democratic presidential campaigns and tech companies and was founded in early 2019 by the Democratic digital advertising group ACRONYM.
"We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers," the company said.
Shadow said the app collected data in a way that was "sound and accurate," but the process for transmitting the results generated by the app to the state party was marred by a coding error that produced inaccurate numbers. The company said the error was fixed overnight.
Campaign finance records show the Iowa Democratic Party paid $63,000 to the company in late 2019 while Nevada Democrats paid Shadow $58,000 for technology services in August with additional payments totaling about $50,000 in October and December.
At least three Democratic presidential campaigns have used apps developed by Shadow: Kirsten Gillibrand, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden. But Biden's campaign said it dropped Shadow's texting app out of cybersecurity concerns. Gillibrand has since left the race.
Precinct chairs reported having problems with the app every step of the way. When they downloaded it on to their personal phones, they received warnings that the app might not be secure since it did not come from a traditional app store. Those warnings scared off some users at that point, organizers said.
Other users reported problems logging in and setting up a two-factor authentication, which involved a QR code and text message system. Others who successfully navigated beyond that step reported the app freezing at key times or confusing error messages that popped up when they tried to report results.
In Johnson County, the state’s most Democratic, more than 30 precinct chairs gathered at a Coralville hotel after the caucuses trying to call in their results, said precinct chair Jonathan Green.
Green, who works in information technology, said he was able to test the app before the caucus, but he kept receiving error messages when he tried to report the results. The group finally got through late Monday after an hour or more on hold and passed around a cell phone one by one to report their results, Green said.
"It was just a wreck," he said. “The system was not prepared to handle the app not working and everybody was overwhelmed.”
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, D.C., Michelle Price in Las Vegas and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.
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