Feb 6, 2020 - Technology

Finger pointing continues over Iowa app fiasco

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's been two days since app problems delayed returns and cast a stain on the Iowa caucus, but the blame game continues.

Why it matters: So far, two things seem pretty clear. It's not a good idea to rely on an app as the primary means of tabulating election results, and the app used in Iowa was also pretty bad.

Recap: The Iowa Democratic Party commissioned a mobile app to convey results of local caucuses to the state Democratic Party. Finding issues with the app, many precincts chose to phone in results instead, but the party didn't have enough staff to handle those reports, delaying the results.

The big picture: The problems in Iowa come at a particularly tough time. The U.S. is already struggling to bolster the 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.

Security is essential to election technology, but it's not the only thing. Voting systems, whether paper or digital, also need to be straightforward, transparent and auditable, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports.

  • Despite advances in technology, paper is seen as the gold standard because it offers all three.,
  • But, if you are going to use technology, you want to make sure it is thoroughly tested and proven reliable. The app used in Iowa, made by a startup called Shadow, was neither.
  • In fact, according to reports, it was buggy and error-prone, difficult to use and not even designed to be used in production, relying on a testing protocol for distribution.

While there is no evidence of any hacking having taken place, ProPublica reports the app was also highly susceptible to intrusion. The same report says the Homeland Security Department offered to help test the app, but the Iowa Democratic Party declined the offer.

What they're saying:

  • Zeynep Tufekci, on Twitter: "Who needs the Russians when elite arrogance, matched in magnitude by their incompetence, can screw things up this badly? If only it were the Russians! That'd be easier to fix. Worse, there was no need for that damn app."
  • Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira, in a statement on the firm's website: "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. As the Iowa Democratic Party has confirmed, the underlying data and collection process via Shadow's mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not."
  • Tara McGowan, co-founder of Democrat tech startup ACRONYM, to Axios: "We don't want things like this to discourage people taking risks because the aversion to the risks could be the reason we lose in November."

The bottom line: This was essentially a playbook for how not to employ technology in an election.

What's next: Nevada was reported to be planning to use the same app for its caucus, but it has decided not to in the wake of the Iowa fiasco.

Go deeper: Pete Buttigieg holds narrow lead in Iowa with 97% of precincts reporting

Go deeper

After Iowa, thinking smarter about election security

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.

Software disaster sinks Iowa caucus

Biden supporters caucus in a Des Moines, Iowa, gym. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The disastrous rollout of the Iowa Democratic Party's new vote-reporting app Monday night looks to go down as a software train wreck for the ages.

The big picture: Coding disasters have been with us as long as there's been software, and in the past they've led to exploding space missions and lethal doses of radiation for cancer patients. In this case, the failure of a new app, followed by long delays with a phone-reporting backup system, seems to have crippled the calendar-leading Iowa Democratic caucuses — adding a fresh element of instability to our troubled election system.

DNC chair calls for accountability after Iowa Caucus fiasco

Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price. Photo: Joshua Lott/AFP via Getty Images

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez called Tuesday for the vote-tallying app that delayed results from Iowa's caucuses to "provide absolute transparent accounting of what went wrong."

The big picture: The Iowa Democratic Party has released results from 62% of the precincts that caucused on Monday, after a software error held up results from the first real test of candidates' appeal to voters in the 2020 presidential election.