The Slatest

What Happened in Iowa

Men, standing in a row, look at their smartphones.
Can you hear me now?
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

Now that Iowa’s Democratic caucuses are officially FUBAR, there are many theories trickling out about just how deep this conspiracy runs—against every candidate, depending on which one you ask. Even before the country went to sleep late Monday night without the gratification of a winner, stories were already surfacing about the sad state of the technology the state party was relying on to, ahem, modernize the process. The backup, analog plan to report results was phoning them in to the party, but that process appeared to be woefully undermanned and in utter disarray as well. The result? We don’t have a winner! Yet. It’s still not totally clear the full extent of went wrong Monday night when Iowans went to caucus, but after the dust settled on the caucuses that weren’t, here’s what we know (so far).

There appear to be several problems that Iowa Democratic Party leaders say are related to the reporting of the votes, not the actual counting of them. The most troubling development was the news that there were “inconsistencies” in the numbers of votes getting reported. The state party says the inconsistencies, however, are not in the actual final tally, but in some of the auxiliary numbers that are being tracked in Iowa for the first time this cycle. As part of a push for greater transparency, the DNC now requires caucus states to report the vote tally for each of the three rounds, rather than just the final count. Previously, candidates’ actual support could get swept away by the viability requirements of the caucus system that require at least 15 percent of the vote in any given precinct.

“On a conference call with the presidential campaigns, Iowa Democratic Party officials said the delay was because of the new rules requiring caucus leaders to report three sets of numbers to party headquarters, rather than just the delegate totals,” the New York Times reports. “For Iowa, the new reporting standards meant counting how many people backed each candidate on the first and second alignment. That change, requiring the reporting of three separate numbers from each of the state’s more than 1,600 precincts, has slowed the gathering of data to a crawl.”

“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” said Mandy McClure, the state party’s communications director. “In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report. 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.”

The technology also reportedly failed, as the app designed to assist in reporting the precinct vote totals appeared to be deeply flawed. Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democratic Party and its 177 precincts, told the Washington Post that the app’s problems surfaced last week and that state officials were aware of the issues. The state party leaders failed to provide any training on how to use the new app, Bagniewski said, and local officials had difficulty downloading and logging in to the program.

Why did the app break down? From early reports and stories from Iowa, it appeared to be hastily conceived and not fully vetted, and it quite simply didn’t work that well. We’ll surely get a full forensic breakdown of what happened in the future, but the app’s functionality was known to be vulnerable. From the Times: “J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, and David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said Monday night that they had warned state officials that the mobile reporting app was vulnerable to what is known as a ‘denial of service attack,’ in which hackers flood the central servers used to power the app with traffic, stalling them or knocking them offline.”

With the app by all accounts not functioning, and the phone lines to report hundreds of precinct totals jammed, the party finally called time on its effort to get results up and out Monday night. Given the digital failure, the party is now piecing together the votes the old-fashioned way, using the paper trail.