What happens when you mix an eighteenth-century voting system with twenty-first-century technology? Pandemonium.
Four years after a presidential election marred by allegations of fraud and foreign interference, the U.S. democratic system met with its first major mishap of the presidential campaign on Monday night when the Iowa Democratic Party delayed the release of caucus results because of a “coding issue” in the app that was supposed to record votes.
By late Tuesday, President Donald Trump, who breezed to victory in the Republican Iowa caucus, had made his case for reelection in his State of the Union address. But it was still unclear who had won the first Democratic primary contest.
The Democratic results, which were supposed to come out Monday night, were withheld because of what the state party said were “inconsistencies” with the reporting of the results, and that the delay was “simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or intrusion.”
But for those voters who already harbored suspicions about electoral integrity or the Democratic Party, “this will certainly intensify those suspicions, whether rightly or wrongly,” says Nick Beauchamp, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern who studies social media and conflicts within left-wing political groups.
“I doubt whether this would have any effects that carry over all the way into November, but I can imagine a temporary increase in distrust,” Beauchamp says.
“My assumption is that the app itself is relatively straight-forward,” says Stephen Intille, an associate professor of computer sciences at Northeastern.
“Counting and reporting votes isn’t inherently complicated,” he says. “The complicated part is making sure it operates effectively in a chaotic environment when everyone is trying to run it at the same time.”
Prior to the caucuses, the state party refused to disclose certain details about the app, namely who made it (a partisan tech company, Shadow Inc.) and what security measures had been taken to protect the results, asserting that this information would make the app vulnerable to attack.
“It’s hard to test an app like this because you don’t have an equivalent situation occurring on a regular basis where you can run the app in the actual circumstance,” Intille said. “It’s difficult to simulate that environment.”
Intille argues that if party officials were worried about security, they shouldn’t have been using an app in the first place.
“The security risks are too high,” Intille says. “You’re better off having a distributed process without using technology because the more you centralize the process, the bigger the threat is for hacking.”
The app was supposed to replace the process of calling in votes on the phone, a method the party has used for decades. But then the app failed, and the phone lines backed up, leaving precinct leaders with only their paper ballots, which the state party has been cross-referencing since Monday night to tally results, according to an official statement.
“Usually it’s only conspiracy theorists who say we need paper records of everything,” Beauchamp says. “But the fact is, sometimes technology goes wrong, and we do actually need that paper trail.”
As for the political fallout of these technological mistakes, Beauchamp thinks the caucuses chaos might hurt some of the candidates.
“Buttigieg probably would have been better off if this hadn’t happened, even if he lost to Sanders,” Beauchamp says. “Now all the newspapers are just talking about this mess rather than whether or not he did well.”
For other candidates, the aftermath was more favorable.
“You could argue that it helps Biden in some ways because you can’t see the degree of his loss quite so immediately,” Beauchamp says.
Glitchy apps aside, though, Beauchamp thinks the bigger problem with the Iowa caucus is the system itself.
“Caucuses are a nice idea. We want to have communities where people are engaged,” he says. “And preserving some aspects of that tradition would be nice, if it didn’t involve the ridiculous classist and ableist requirements of being able to spend five hours voting on a Monday night.”
The next Democratic caucus will be held in Nevada on Feb. 22. The same company that developed the app for the Iowa Democratic Party, Shadow Inc., was commissioned to create the app for the Nevada Democratic Party.
Is that enough time to fix the bugs and beta test the app? Maybe. But a larger question still remains: Why introduce an app into a system so antiquated votes are cast by standing in a certain corner of a room?
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Intille says.