Tech problem with mobile app causes Iowa caucus chaos

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A new mobile app was supposed to help Democratic officials quickly gather information from some 1,700 caucus sites throughout Iowa. Instead, a “coding issue” within the app is being blamed for delays that left the results unknown the morning after the first-in-the nation presidential nominating contest.

Glitches with a new mobile app Monday caused confusion, and some caucus organizers were forced to call in results for the state party to record manually, introducing delays and the possibility of human error. Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said the delays were not the result of a breach and party systems were secure.

“While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system,” Price said in a statement Tuesday, adding the issue has since been fixed. “The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.

The party said it expects to release unofficial results later Tuesday after manually verifying its data against paper backups. Unlike the November election and state primaries administered by state and local election officials, the Iowa caucus was administered by the Iowa Democratic Party.

States with upcoming elections took note quickly of the problems in Iowa. The Nevada Democratic Party said Tuesday it would not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucuses.

The Iowa Democratic Party would not say who developed the app for reporting caucus results, but a spokesperson for one of the Democratic presidential campaigns confirmed to the AP that a company called Shadow Inc., created the Iowa caucus reporting app and the Nevada app as well.

Campaign finance records show that the IDP paid $63,000 to the tech company, Shadow Inc., in late 2019, while the Nevada state party paid them $58,000 in August.

Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News on Tuesday that there was no indication of “any malicious cyberactivity.” He added that Iowa Democrats declined his department’s offer to test the reporting app. That’s not unusual, as outside security firms do similar testing. The state party had said previously it had worked closely with security experts to test the app.

Des Moines County Democratic Chair Tom Courtney said he heard that in precincts across his county, including his own, the mobile app was “a mess.” When precinct leaders called Democratic Party headquarters, “they weren’t answering the phones,” Courtney said.

The state Democratic Party was sending volunteers and staffers across the state Tuesday to retrieve hard-copy results of the caucuses so they can check them against results reported from precincts via the party’s app and over the phone, according to multiple sources working for the party on crunching numbers and granted anonymity to discuss sensitive party information.

The problems were an embarrassment for a state that has long sought to protect its prized status as the first contest in presidential primaries and the nation’s first vetter of candidates. The delay was certain to become fodder for critics who argued that the caucuses — party meetings that can be chaotic, crowded and messy — are antiquated and exclusionary.

The Iowa Democratic Party pressed forward with the new reporting system amid warnings about the possibility of hacking and glitches. Party officials said they took numerous security precautions and maintained that any errors would be easily correctable because of backups and a paper trail.

But organizers running precincts in Iowa didn’t get to test the app beforehand. Iowa party officials had said they would not be sending the new mobile app to precinct chairs for downloading until just before the caucuses to narrow the window for any interference.

Some precinct chairs said they had trouble downloading or logging into the app and didn’t use it.

The apps were barely working Monday night, according to a person involved in processing the data who requested anonymity to discuss the party’s internal system. That forced party aides to record results from the precincts via phone and enter them manually into a database. Officials were left using photos of results to validate results and ensure accuracy.

Jonathan Green, who chaired a precinct in Lone Tree, said that when he tried to put the results into the reporting app, he kept getting a confusing error message: “Unknown protocol. The address specifies a protocol (e.g., “wxyz:??”.) the browser does not recognize, so the browser cannot properly connect to the site.”

He said he ultimately gave up and tried to call in the results to the party. Like others, he was put on hold for an extended period of time. In the end, it took hours to report results from his small site, he said.

The slowdown was exacerbated by the fact that the party was for the first time attempting to report three different sets of data — an initial headcount of each candidates’ support, a count after supporters had realigned, and the state delegate winners.

“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” the party said in a statement. “This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

As scrutiny turned to upcoming elections in other states, Nevada Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy issued a statement saying that his state would not be a repeat of the same problems and that the same app and vendor would not be used.

“We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward,” McCurdy said in a statement, without mentioning Shadow by name.

Nevada Democrats did not respond to a follow-up message asking if the party had already planned to use a different app and vendor or if that was a change made in the wake of Iowa’s technical problems.

The Democratic digital advertising group ACRONYM launched Shadow in early 2019, promising to help “run smarter campaigns.”

In a statement, ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan acknowledged that the organization had a “relationship” with Shadow, but sought to distance herself, characterizing Shadow Inc. as an “independent” company. Business registration records show they share the same Washington D.C. address.

In a separate statement, ACRONYM said it’s an investor in several companies, including Shadow, but was “eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party with respect to what happened.”

President Donald Trump’s campaign quickly seized on the issue to sow doubt about the validity of the results.

“Quality control = rigged?” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted Monday evening, adding a emoji with furrowed brows.

Richard L. Hasen, an election expert and professor at University of California, Irvine School of Law, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the integrity of the election.

“Most of the time when there is a problem with an election it turns out to be the result of administrative incompetence rather than someone cheating or some outside interference,” Hasen said.

Deploying new technology this close to an election is always a risky proposition, said Lawrence Norden, an elections expert with The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Norden said it’s akin to a major retailer using new cash registers for the first time on Black Friday.

“To roll out a new technology without really testing it and making it available as early as possible and giving folks the opportunity to challenge it and work out all the bugs is a high-stakes decision, which I think is proving to be problematic today,” Norden said.

Norden said party officials were wise to slow down the reporting to ensure accurate results, given concerns of another round of election interference by Russia or other hostile governments seeking to undermine U.S. democracy.

“People aren’t going to remember in two weeks that these results were late, but you can bet if the results changed dramatically they would,” Norden said. “Those of us who work in the election space support accuracy over speed.”

Ruth Thompson, who chaired a precinct at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, said she did not use the app to report results because organizers had problems trying to download and test it.

“We just came to a consensus that nobody was happy with the app,” she said. She also did not try to report her site’s results over the phone after hearing reports of long delays in answering the line at state headquarters, she said.

Instead, veteran caucusgoers at her site used calculators to compute the delegate allocation and then texted a photo of the results to Polk County Democratic Party officials, who drove it to state party headquarters.

Thompson said the delays in results were unfortunate because the process went “remarkably smoothly” in other ways.

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