The Iowa caucuses were a comedy of tech errors and poor planning

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Enlarge / The Iowa Democratic Party caucus app displayed on an iPhone outside Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

Getty Images | Bloomberg

The disastrous Iowa Democratic caucuses were hampered by a mix of tech problems and poor planning, a New York Times report published yesterday shows.

From a malfunctioning smartphone app to a barely staffed IT help desk and a key party official not knowing how to use a Google spreadsheet, plenty of problems turned the process of calculating and reporting caucus results into a laughingstock. While most of the problems were self-inflicted, the state party also suffered from jammed phone lines after 4chan users “publicly posted the election hotline number and encouraged one another to ‘clog the lines.'”

As we noted in coverage last week, the smartphone app used for reporting results “repeatedly hung as precinct leaders attempted to submit returns.”

Party officials responded by “instruct[ing] precinct leaders to move to Plan B: calling the results in to caucus headquarters, where dozens of volunteers would enter the figures into a secure system,” yesterday’s Times article said.

“But when many of those volunteers tried to log on to their computers, they made an unsettling discovery,” the Times wrote. “They needed smartphones to retrieve a code, but they had been told not to bring their phones into the ‘boiler room’ in Des Moines.”

The Times article continued:

As a torrent of results were phoned in from school gymnasiums, union halls and the myriad other gathering places that made the Iowa caucuses a world-famous model of democracy, it soon became clear that the whole process was melting down.

Volunteers resorted to passing around a spare iPad to log into the system. Melissa Watson, the state party’s chief financial officer, who was in charge of the boiler room, did not know how to operate a Google spreadsheet application used to input data, Democratic officials later acknowledged.

Others, desperate to verify results, began telling some precinct leaders to email photographs of their worksheets—paper forms used to tally results—to a dedicated email address. But for hours, no one monitored the inbox. When it was finally opened Tuesday morning, there were 700 unread emails waiting, with photos that had been sent sideways; volunteers had to crane their necks to decipher the handwritten forms.

The volunteers apparently either didn’t know how to rotate images or were using an application without that functionality.

One week after the caucuses, the results are still in dispute. Bernie Sanders got the most votes, but Pete Buttigieg leads in delegates. Amid reports of errors in tabulation, the Associated Press has not declared a winner and the Sanders campaign is seeking a “partial recanvass” of the results.

That app

The problematic IowaReporter mobile app was created by a company called Shadow Inc. The app was developed on a tight schedule because of delays in caucus planning and “sometimes froze” when precinct leaders used it to report results, the Times wrote.

“When precinct chairs reported issues [with the app], the state party referred them to a lone help-desk employee, who did not always respond to calls and emails,” the Times wrote.

The app was broken enough that state party leaders decided “to abandon digital methods and rely on the old ways, gathering data over the phone and doing the math by hand.” But when precinct leaders tried to phone in results instead of reporting them through the broken app, “calls to the state party hotline sometimes languished on hold for five hours,” the article also said. The attempt by 4chan users to “clog the lines” apparently contributed to that problem.

Results collected over the phone “were riddled with errors.” The Times said it reviewed caucus data and found that “at least 10 percent of precincts appeared to have improperly allocated their delegates, based on reported vote totals.” There were mistakes “at every stage of the tabulation process: in recording votes, in calculating and awarding delegates, and in entering the data into the state party’s database.”

The Times called the fiasco “a total system breakdown that casts doubt on how a critical contest on the American political calendar has been managed for years.” Problems in Iowa’s caucus system became more apparent this time around because of new reporting requirements. For the first time, the state party publicly reported vote totals in the first and second alignments, as well as the state delegate equivalents reported in previous elections.

On the night of the caucuses, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told the campaigns on a conference call that “the problems stemmed from party officials having to collect three sets of data from all precincts for the first time,” the Times wrote.

The Times report continued:

“You always had to calculate these numbers, all we’re asking is that you report them for the first time,” Jeff Weaver, Mr. Sanders’ closest adviser, said he told Mr. Price on the call. “If you haven’t been calculating these numbers all along, it’s been a fraud for 100 years.”

Mr. Price ended the call.



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