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Iowa Democrats Should Have Known Better Than To Use An App

More than 14 hours after the Iowa caucuses began, we still don’t have any official results, and it’s becoming clear that an app is at least partly to blame.

An app designed to let caucus leaders report results seems to have had problems including user error, lack of connectivity and an insufficient backup plan, demonstrating exactly why it’s so difficult — and risky — to introduce new technology into elections.

“Right now, a lot of the election security community is trying to, as nicely as possible, say ‘We told you so,’” said Maggie MacAlpine, a co-founder of Nordic Innovation Labs, a firm of security consultants whose specialties include safeguarding elections.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party, which runs the state’s Democratic caucuses, introduced a smartphone app that local precinct chairs could use to send in tallies from their caucus sites. Immediately, election security experts raised concerns because the party wouldn’t reveal who built the app, what testing had been done, or who they had consulted to make sure it was secure.

The party insisted, however, that thorough security measures had been put in place, and besides, precinct chairs could always fall back on the reporting technology they’ve been using for decades: a phone-in hotline. One problem: Multiple precinct chairs reported hours-long wait times, and even getting cut off, when they tried to use that hotline.

Even before the caucuses began, some precinct chairs reported difficulty with the app, including trouble downloading it. Additionally, one county chairman told The New York Times that seven of the 10 volunteers running precincts in his district never downloaded the app at all and always planned to call in the results.

Nate Silver reacts to 1st results from Iowa

These problems demonstrate one of the first big mistakes the party made when introducing new tech to an already arcane process: not considering its user base.

“One of the reasons election security is such a difficult problem to solve is because the people who are operating elections aren’t tech people,” MacAlpine said. “They’re often retirees, people who are trying to help their community.”

Compounding the issue, many of these events also take place in rural areas where cell phone reception is less reliable. In that way, even if the app functioned perfectly, it already failed on a practical level if the people who were intended to use it didn’t understand it or couldn’t access it.

But, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, the app didn’t work perfectly, either.

“While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data,” Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said in a statement released Tuesday morning, adding that the error was due to a coding issue that was later fixed.

Though the party still isn’t revealing many details about how the app was tested beforehand, a bug like this suggests it was not adequately tested at scale in the way it would be used on caucus night.

“There are some really good things to do when you’re rolling out any kind of tech in any high-stakes situation,” said Dana Chisnell, an expert on design in elections and former co-director at the Center for Civic Design. “You would want to do a lot of testing in lots of different ways, from reliability and resilience to usability and access. The evidence suggests those kinds of tests were not done.”

Both Chisnell and MacAlpine questioned why the party didn’t simply use the caucuses as a chance to pilot an app, rather than diving into a full roll out. But in a way, the party already piloted using an app back in 2016. Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Iowa introduced apps built by Microsoft to report results during the caucuses in 2016. And it didn’t work last time, either, with multiple results not properly transmitted.

The good news, if there is any, is that because the Iowa caucuses also have a robust paper trail and don’t require a secret ballot, it should be possible to verify the results in spite of the massive collapse of the reporting system, and the Iowa Democratic Party chairman said in his statement that’s exactly what the party is doing now. But the fallout from the disastrous results-night-that-wasn’t threatens the future of the caucuses themselves — and maybe even impacted this year’s nomination process.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.