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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The big lesson from Iowa: Security is only a starting point in protecting elections. Usability, reliability and redundancy are just as important.

Why it matters: As long as election officials neglect software fundamentals and view security only as a matter of locking hackers out, we will keep facing trust-eroding system meltdowns like this week's Iowa caucus fiasco.

The big picture: The U.S. is already struggling to bolster the perceived stability and reliability of its elections, which are under stress from extreme partisanship, the spread of conspiracy theories on social media, and the still-fresh memories of Russian meddling in the 2016 contest.

Iowa presented the nation with a vexing scenario in which a primary contest was so compromised by tech snafus that its results weren't available for days.

  • The caucuses weren't hacked, as far as we know — although a ProPublica report found that Iowa Democrats' new vote-tallying app was vulnerable.
  • But the confusion and delays they suffered were as damaging as meddling from bad actors might have been. As Zeynep Tufekci asked in the Atlantic, "Who needs the Russians?"
  • The Iowa system failures created an information void that opened fertile ground for conspiracy theories and influence operations.

Two days after Iowa turned into the "Waiting for Godot" caucus, it's clear that Iowa's new caucus app had all the hallmarks of a software disaster:

  • Changing requirements, driven by a need to tally winners in three new ways.
  • Failure to field test.
  • Inadequate fallback plans.
  • A hard-stop deployment deadline that left no wiggle room.

Here's what we now know about the mistakes made by Shadow, the app-developer contractor, and the Iowa Democrats:

  • The app went out to users in a not-ready-for-prime-time test mode, which made it harder to install.
  • The app recorded results correctly but then transmitted different numbers to the party HQ, thanks to what officials now admit was a "coding error."
  • Use of the app was optional, but when local officials fell back on phone calls, there weren't enough people to take the data.

Of note: This kind of disaster isn't exclusive to the digital world. After low-tech failures of Florida's punch-card voting machines, the 2000 presidential election hung in the balance for weeks and the dispute had to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The good news:

  • Most states don't hold caucuses, and the more common primary elections are less complex and easier to run.
  • The same patchwork of differing state election systems that makes security so hard to guarantee also means that any one state's vulnerabilities are likely to be local.

Experts recommend that all election systems should be:

  • Simple: Don't try to score an election three different ways if you can avoid it. This may be a bad moment to experiment with ranked choice and other complex voting schemes.
  • Transparent: People will trust systems more when all parties to the election have had an opportunity to examine them. Even in a party-only primary like Iowa, all the competing campaigns should have had a chance to try out and stress-test the app.
  • Auditable: Assume that failures of all kinds are inevitable and recounts are likely. Make sure that there are ways to deliver accurate election results no matter what — by candlelight if necessary.

Auditable paper trails remain the gold standard, according to the National Academy of Sciences and an overwhelming consensus of security experts.

Yes, but: Iowa had them and still messed up.

Go deeper

Updated 12 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona Republicans censure Cindy McCain and GOP governor

Combination images of Cindy McCain and Gov. Doug Ducey. Photo: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for U.S.VETS/Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Arizona Republican Party members voted on Saturday to censure prominent GOP figures Cindy McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who've all faced clashes with former President Trump, per AZCentral.

Why it matters: Although the resolution is symbolic, this move plus the re-election of Trump loyalist Kelli Ward as state GOP chair shows the strong hold the former president has on the party in Arizona, despite President Biden winning the state in the 2020 election.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

DOJ: Capitol rioter threatened to "assassinate" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Supporters of former President Trump storm the U.S. Captiol on Jan. 6. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Texas man who has been charged with storming the U.S. Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 siege posted death threats against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Department of Justice said.

The big picture: Garret Miller faces five charges in connection to the riot by supporters of former President Trump, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and making threats. According to court documents, Miller posted violent threats online the day of the siege, including tweeting “Assassinate AOC.”