Iowa Caucuses App Couldn’t Handle Complexity, Experts Say

DES MOINES, IOWA - FEBRUARY 03: Supporters attend a caucus night watch party for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa is the first contest in ... DES MOINES, IOWA - FEBRUARY 03: Supporters attend a caucus night watch party for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa is the first contest in the 2020 presidential nominating process with the candidates then moving on to New Hampshire. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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February 4, 2020 6:03 p.m.

Those administering the Iowa caucuses this year faced increased complexity in their task amid rules changes and a decision to use a third-party app to transmit election results.

Experts in cybersecurity and election administration told TPM on Tuesday that the app chosen by the Iowa Democratic Party failed to handle the complexity, providing an example of what not to do in administering an election.

After complaints over alleged irregularities in the count of the state’s 2016 primary, which was done by hand, the Democratic Party instituted various changes to the data that had to be recorded during the Iowa caucuses.

That includes three data sets: the initial vote tally, the second round of voting, and then the final tally.

It’s clear that it was not ready for primetime,” said Andrew Appel, a Princeton computer science professor and election security expert.

Separate reporting has suggested that Shadow, the company behind the app used to convey data from precincts to state Democratic Party administrators, may be at fault. The Verge reported on Tuesday that Shadow used a free tier for the platform on which the app was based, giving it reduced capacity.

Shadow apologized for the issue in a statement.

Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at Democracy Fund and a former commissioner on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, told TPM that elections can rarely satisfy the demands of being free, cheap to administer, and accurate.

“The average county budget for an election department is less than one percent of the entire county’s budget,” Patrick said, adding that problems would likely persist “until we dedicate sufficient resources to the infrastructure of elections.”

Patrick added that states and other jurisdictions which hold elections with the same systems on a regular basis are far less likely to face the kind of problems that occurred this year in the Iowa caucuses.

“Here, you have counties reporting through a party in a way that they probably don’t ever do …. other than last night in the caucus,” she said.

Appel argued that speed is essential to Iowa in part because of the status they hold in influencing later primary elections.

In normal elections, it’s really interesting to know on election night who won, but we can afford to wait a couple of days for the official results,” he argued. “In the Iowa caucuses, the informal election results are very influential in the next primary, and so it makes a bigger difference.

But Patrick cautioned that any significant delay in the time between vote tallying and presentation to the public could damage public confidence in the accuracy and fairness of the election.

You have individuals out there saying that the fact that we don’t have information or a declared winner or an unofficial winner, that that is in and of itself representative of something to be concerned about,” she said. “I think we’re just going to see this escalate through the course of the primary season.”

After nearly 24 hours of delays, Iowa Democrats attempted to assure the public that the caucus results were reliable.

“We also have a paper trail, and documentation that is accurate,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price on Tuesday, who attributed the problem to a “coding error on the backend.”

“We will be reporting more data than we ever have before,” Price said, adding that the state’s Democratic Party has a different paper trail than before.

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