The App That Broke the Iowa Caucus

Democrats desperately need to win the internet to beat Trump. Their first big test was a massive failure.

Mr. Warzel is an opinion writer at large.

A representative for Senator Bernie Sanders briefing reporters after a delay in caucus results in Iowa.
Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times

A transformative piece of technology is supposed to “disrupt” the unwieldy ways that came before it. On Monday evening, an app built to deliver quicker caucus results took the Silicon Valley term of art literally, contributing to massive delays in reporting the results in Iowa. Hours after the caucuses ended, the state Democratic Party, citing inconsistencies in the reporting data, still has not publicly reported any results. It stressed there was no “hack or intrusion.”

Over the past hours a disheartening game of electoral tech support, conducted by journalists across the internet, has unfolded. And in place of definitive results, an information war has broken out, unleashing reckless speculation, conspiracy theories and deep anxiety.

First came the reports — trickling in from caucus leaders, precinct captains and observers — that the app wasn’t working properly. On Monday evening a precinct captain told me by text that their caucus manager was “unable to get the app from the Democratic Party to work” and “had to do the math to figure out delegates ‘long hand.’” FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-Deveaux spoke to a frustrated caucus leader who suggested the app itself wouldn’t download. “We could not problem-solve getting the app onto one of our devices,” he told her. NBC News reported some caucus leaders had missed the window to download the app altogether. The Biden campaign issued a letter to Iowa party leaders suggesting the app had failed.

Reckless speculation followed about possible security problems with the technology. Stories from late last month raising concerns about the caucus app’s vulnerabilities recirculated on Twitter. Among the chief fears: The app was to be downloaded directly to the phones of caucus volunteers, making it difficult to ensure the safety of the devices.

After midnight, The Huffington Post reported that Shadow, a tech company funded by the progressive digital media firm Acronym, was responsible for building the app. Shadow, according to its website, bills itself “as building a long-term, side-by-side ‘Shadow’ of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large.” Acronym quickly put out a statement distancing itself from Shadow and noting, “We, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party.”

There’s a great deal we don’t know yet about Shadow and the caucus app, though details have trickled in. Vice attempted to install the app itself and had similar issues to caucus leaders logging in. On Tuesday afternoon, Shadow issued its first official statement taking responsibility for the delayed results. Via Twitter, the company stressed that “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.”

Its apparent failure is a nightmare scenario for Democrats and the political left. Quite simply, the party desperately needs to win the internet in their race to beat President Trump. That means building infrastructure to connect and assuage voters, controlling the narrative and overcoming the substantial time advantage held by the president. In its first critical test, the party systematically undermined each of those goals.

Shadow’s failure suggests a potentially deadly combination of techno-utopianism and laziness. The two fuel each other: The overarching belief that software will fix everything leads to slapdash engineering, procurement and deployment. The result is an obsession with another Silicon Valley term of art, “minimum viable product.” The author Eric Ries defined it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

Shadow’s app seems to fit that definition. Reports suggest that the app was engineered in just the past two months. According to cybersecurity consultants and academics interviewed by the Times, the app was not tested at statewide scale or vetted by the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency. And even if the app was working just fine, reports suggest the roll out of the tool was bungled, to the point where those tasked with reporting via the app weren’t trained to know how to use it.

The process feels reckless given today’s internet, where individual devices are easy to compromise and where routine disruptions like denial of service attacks can happen at a moment’s notice. There’s also precedent for rigorous testing. A 2012 profile of President Obama’s digital team in The Atlantic detailed an excruciating process by which the organization simulated “every possible disaster situation” weeks before Election Day to ensure reliability.

Since the caucus is conducted in public view and with a full paper trail, it seems hard to imagine that the results would be lost. Still, a critical failure like this creates credibility problems for the party and confidence issues for voters, who woke up Tuesday morning to uncertainty.

The cryptic nature of the digital firms and tech contractors is also bound to raise questions. Who exactly is responsible for building the apps intended to protect the integrity of the democratic process? Who is funding the companies behind the tech companies? Why didn’t the Iowa Democratic Party disclose the app maker? How are procurement decisions made? Where’s the transparency? That the name of the company at the center of the fiasco is the literal definition of opacity doesn’t help either.

Perhaps most concerning is that, on an internet engaged in a constant information war, the Democrats’ technology failure created an information vacuum that was quickly seized upon by trolls and political operatives alike to cast doubt on the electoral process and sow division. “Quality control = rigged?” Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, tweeted on Monday night. The message was retweeted and liked a combined 14,000 times. Both Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. questioned whether the results had been “rigged” or fixed, as did the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany.

In 2020, even in periods of relative calm and certainty, conspiracy theories abound. By failing to deliver as an anxious nation watched, the Iowa Democratic Party helped transform the caucus into a petri dish for conspiracies. Democrats floated suspicions of their own party; Republicans amplified them and tried out theories of their own; unsubstantiated claims of meddling or hacking rattled around picking up shares, likes and retweets. Facts were scarce. Fear, uncertainty and doubt took their place. “Big WIN for us in Iowa tonight,” Mr. Trump tweeted shortly before midnight.

Disruption, indeed.

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