More than 24 hours after the Democratic caucuses in Iowa finished, statewide results still have not yet been completed by party officials, who are facing continued embarrassment from voters and candidates frustrated with the delays. Forced to rely on their internal measurements, both Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both declared victory in Iowa before moving onto New Hampshire, expecting results to be released Tuesday morning to confirm their data. As of Tuesday afternoon, the party began releasing partial results, after tallying and verifying them by hand, but the outcome is not yet finalized, referencing “coding issues” as the cause for delay.
As frustrations boiled over, conspiracy theories began to emerge, ranging from a shadowy coordinated effort to keep Sanders from winning the nomination, to a vote manipulation collaboration between Buttigieg and the app developers, to a puppet master Hillary Clinton conducting a revenge operation. As they tend to be, the theories have been far fetched, but the frustration expressed by voters and candidates has been very real, spawning heated discussions and anger.
The Caucus App Story
The app’s origin begins with ACRONYM, a nonprofit political advocacy organization founded by Tara McGowan, a strategist and journalist. Fresh off of Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat in 2016, McGowan formed ACRONYM in 2017 as a technology and online media resource for Democratic Party causes. At the same time, two former employees of Clinton’s presidential campaign, Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis, formed Groundbase, a software company intended to equip candidates with technology tools for their campaigns. Groundbase was acquired by ACRONYM in January 2019 and renamed to Shadow, Inc.
Shadow was one of many companies in ACRONYM’s portfolio, which also managed various ad campaigns and other subsidiaries in its portfolio. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin paid Shadow for its messaging service, and the Iowa Democratic Party paid for the app that was to be used in its presidential caucus. Both Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden’s campaigns paid Shadow for “software rights and subscriptions,” which led to the theories of a vote manipulation plot by Buttigieg, but campaign spokeman Sean Savett said the fees were used to license the company’s messaging applications in order to communicate with voters.
Following the publicity surrounding Shadow’s app failures, ACRONYM was quick to distance itself from the company, stating that it was only one of many investments made by the organization. The app, which was distributed through private testing services to precinct leaders in Iowa, had various technical issues on the day of the caucus, resulting in the inability to accurately report results. Those failures coupled with insufficient backup phone capacity led to precinct leaders being put on hold for hours waiting to report their results, with some of them resigning to try again the next day.
The disaster has been a lesson in failure for both politics and technology, leaving many Democrats fundamentally disenchanted with the process while introducing a degree of mistrust in the system.
- Typical multi-user smartphone apps go through a rigorous, iterative user acceptance testing process before being released to the public. Interactive app companies conduct test panels with small groups of users and expand those groups until a public beta version is prepared. Iowa precinct leaders reported getting the app just a few days before the caucus and did not have time to submit user acceptance feedback.
- Precinct leaders also indicated not receiving adequate training in use of the app. This introduces uncertainty and suspicious as to the integrity of the reported results, due to the possibility of user error.
- Mixing politics and money is always met with suspicion. Shadow and ACRONYM were both staffed by Democratic party veterans. Whenever money is exchanged for services for something as sensitive as election results, the individual bias of employees will always come into question.
- The unstated underlying principle of ACRONYM was to equip Democrats with technology and advertising resources that could be used to defeat Trump in the 2020 election. Partisan technology platforms also triggers conspiracy suspicions when dealing with sensitive election data.
Technology is a powerful tool that can be used to enhance the democratic process. But the approach in Iowa has been a catastrophic example of good idea turned into a implementation nightmare. The election process is the most sacred right of America’s citizens and anything surrounding that process must be kept neutral from outside influence, corruption, or tampering. Creating apps for party caucuses, Republican or Democrat, could be useful collaboration tools to enhance the democratic process. But there must be principles guiding those tools in order for them to be successful.