Reliance on Unproven App Mars Iowa's Democratic Caucuses

Democrats looked forward to the first results in their 2020 presidential primary yesterday.

Preliminary results have not been released due to widespread problems with an app designed for reporting precinct-level results to the state party. (The "majority" of results are supposed to be released around 5:00 Eastern today.) Some local leaders could not download or run the app, and there were issues even with those who could use it to report:

Hours after the presidential campaigns and reporters pleaded for information on the massive confusion, [Iowa Democratic Party, or IDP, chairman Troy] Price explained that “as precinct caucus results started coming in, the IDP ran them through an accuracy and quality check. It became clear that there were inconsistencies with the reports. The underlying cause of these inconsistencies was not immediately clear, and required investigation, which took time.”

“As this investigation unfolded, IDP staff activated pre-planned backup measures and entered data manually. This took longer than expected,” he continued.

Price said the party’s initial investigation determined “with certainty” that the data collected through the app was sound but that “it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”

The chairman said that because of mandated paper backups, “we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate. Precinct level results are still being reported to the IDP.”

Charles Stewart posted this analysis from an election administration perspective:

  1. Who runs “elections?” A caucus isn’t an election, of course, it’s an event run entirely by a party. Despite concerns about election administration in the U.S., one thing the fiasco illustrates is what happens when true amateurs run elections (or “elections.”)
  2. The role of technology. Computer technology can help facilitate the tedious calculations that go into figuring who won. But, technology needs to be rigorously tested before being put into use. Don’t use the election/caucus as an opportunity to beta test, much less alpha test.
  3. Learning from technology snafus.  I worry that the wrong lessons will be learned from the failure of the vote-reporting app.  Initial reports suggest the problems are due to failure of the app to perform under load, usability, and lack of capacity in phone back-up, not security.  Security is vitally important, but it is not the only thing.
  4. The inadequacy of back-up plans as the main system. Often, we point to back-up systems, such as paper ballots and paper poll books, as fail-safes in case election computers fail. This is fine if there are one-off problems. They’re not fine when they become the primary system.

Last night and today, conspiracy theories have abounded on social media, but here are some important take aways:

  • The problems with the app demonstrate some of the pitfalls of technology in elections (though technology, correctly used and tested, can be vastly helpful), but it is important not to use the Iowa caucus debacle to fuel some of the hysteria surrounding election security. There is no indication that there were any security failures.
  • Citizens should exercise caution with media reporting and social media hot-takes on election issues. 
  • Election administration is hard, and we should support and admire election officials (on both sides of the aisle) who work hard to ensure that the elections in their jurisdiction are open, fair, and honest. 
  • Procedures, including rigorous and transparent testing, to protect the integrity of elections are vital.

Even honest mistakes in election administration can seriously undermine the public's confidence in election results.

Even if the results reported from the Iowa caucuses accurately represent the will of the Democratic voters in Iowa, they will not be accurate in many people's eyes. This is one reason why election integrity protections such as voter ID and accurate voter registration rolls are so important; they protect not only the actual results of the election but also the public's perception of those results.