War Stories

It’s Time to End Computerized Elections

The Iowa app debacle was an inexcusable fiasco. It was also inevitable.

Paper ballots in envelopes from the 2020 Iowa caucuses
Votes are counted during caucusing in the 66th precinct at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday. Jim Watson/Getty Images

The Iowa app fiasco could stand as a parable of our jerry-built political system—the worst-case scenario of what happens when the inflated value of rural outliers meets the half-baked infatuation with high technology.

It is as yet unknown how the Iowa Democratic Party—an independent fiefdom that functions quite separately from the national committee and quite full of its outsize importance—hired the company called Shadow to create the app for reporting the caucus tallies from the state’s remote precincts Monday night. But a survey of a half-dozen heavyweights in the cybersecurity field suggests the firm is not a known quantity.

Jake Williams, a former NSA analyst now working as principal consultant for the private firm Rendition Infosec, said in an email that a LinkedIn search on Shadow shows no one “with development experience on critical infrastructure.” He added, “It looks like a huge web of ‘who knows who’ rather than ‘these folks have the technical expertise to pull this off.’ ”

The fact, as has since been reported, that the system was never tested at full scale is simply inexcusable—a clear sign that the Iowa Dems signed the contract without first vetting the design with an esteemed IT professional or, possibly, without even knowing such vetting was necessary.

Still, the debacle could have its bright side, if the party’s national leaders learn some lessons and apply them without mercy.

First, one could go on about the need to hire real experts in network technology or bolster cybersecurity, both in the voting machines and in the links between precincts and state headquarters. But the real lesson, which should have been drawn after the 2016 hacking episode, is simpler: Go back to paper ballots—not just for caucuses and primaries, but for general elections.

The history of cybersecurity is the tale of a never-ending arms race, with the offense tending to enjoy a lead over the defense. Private industry, especially banks, are getting better at defense, in part because they have to—it’s central to their business. (No one is going to put money in a bank that gets successfully hacked every week.) But investing hundreds of millions of dollars into voting security—then having to do it again every four or eight years, after hackers find a way around your new wall—is a mug’s game, especially when there’s a cheap alternative.

When I was a kid, my mother and other members of the League of Women Voters went down to their precincts and spent the night counting ballots. If the practice were revived, it might take a while for the results to be announced. And yes, the technique has its own risks, from human error to outright fraud. (Stories are legion of ballot boxes winding up in warehouse basements or nearby rivers.) Scrupulous, nonpartisan or bipartisan monitoring would be essential. But that would be cheaper than endless cybersecurity upgrades—and more susceptible to review. (Most, though far from all, states have paper backup to their voting machines, but rarely are the backups inspected.)

The second lesson to be drawn from Monday night (and I’m hardly alone here) is that it’s time to end caucuses. They’re undemocratic, and they push parties in more extreme directions, as they tend to be attended by activists, the only people with the time and desire to go spend hours on the task. Caucusgoers also tend to be more ideological, one way or another, than mainstream voters. It’s doubly perverse to bestow near-kingmaker’s status to Iowa—one of the country’s smallest, most rural, and least ethnically diverse states: the exact opposite of the Democratic Party’s most salient traits.

There was a certain charm to watching the friendly caucusing and horse-trading by the citizens of Des Moines and Clinton and other towns that no candidate would visit more than once if his or her goal were to win the most votes and delegates rather than chase the dragon of “momentum.” But the charm was like that of a summer-stock production of Brigadoon. It had nothing to do with how most other elections are waged and won; nor do the skill sets it takes to lure caucus voters—for instance, holding intense one-on-one meetings, consuming corn dogs at state fairs, saying something one likes about ethanol—bear any resemblance to those that it takes to govern a large nation.

The app snafu only highlights the dissonance. It’s time to snap Iowans out of their reverie and into modern times—not through carelessly purchased apps that are certain to mess up before they’re thoroughly debugged, but through the adoption of real democracy.