Future Tense

Iowa Democrats’ First Failure Was Not Testing That Calamitous App

A hand holds a smartphone showing the sign-in interface for the Iowa vote reporting app.
Des Moines City Councilman Carl Voss shows photographers the app that was used for caucus results reporting. Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the center of the vote-reporting delays that turned Monday’s Iowa caucus into an embarrassing night of interminable conspiracymongering and cable-news meltdowns is a mobile app that precincts tried to use to send in their results to the state’s Democratic Party. The app, which was built in the past two months by an obscure Democratic tech firm named Shadow, was supposed to make it faster for officials to collect and relay voter data from roughly 1,700 caucus sites. Officials blamed a “coding issue” for inconsistencies they found in the reporting of three sets of data from each precinct, although they said the paper trail of the actual caucus results was uncorrupted. In addition to that issue, multiple Democratic county chairs told Bloomberg they also had trouble downloading and logging in to the app, while people working the caucuses said they were unable to get through to the backup hotline to report results via phone.

Shadow released a statement on Tuesday apologizing for the debacle:

It’s still unclear what exactly went wrong with the app, but all of these issues appear to have something in common: The Iowa Democratic Party clearly wasn’t prepared for any possible issues with the app and a more involved method of vote reporting introduced this year—and sure enough, it reportedly turns out that the app was never tested on a statewide scale. Shadow, which is run by alumni of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns as well as Google, was paid $60,000 to develop the app, but it had just two months after party officials decided to abandon plans to report results over the phone.*

It’s best practice to test any new software in low-consequence, real-world situations for bugs or potential user errors that would otherwise be difficult to detect in the vacuum of the development process. It is certainly a good idea when the software’s only use is a high-stakes, one-off event of national political importance.

Caucuses present a challenge to this practice. In a political context, trying software out in a local election with a smaller turnout would be a suitable test before debuting it on a larger scale. For example, there have been a number of pilot programs testing blockchain voting apps across the country in shareholder meetings, student government elections, and state and municipal elections. But this isn’t easy to do in advance of a presidential caucus. “There’s nothing like a real election,” said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who used to run caucuses in the state. “The problem with the caucuses is that we don’t run them except in a major national election, so there’s no way to ramp up to it. Imagine going to war with only war games under your belt, without facing an actual battle.” Indeed, the particular kind of elaborate maneuvering and politicking that happens during the Iowa caucuses really only happens once every four years, so it’s difficult to simulate or trial on a smaller scale. Absent such an opportunity, it seems that the party opted to launch an app for use at caucus sites on one high-profile night by thousands of people who likely had varying degrees of familiarity with app technology. (It’s worth noting that Iowa state officials used a similar vote-tabulating app developed by Microsoft in 2016, which did not have severe problems. It is unclear why Microsoft was not involved this year.)

Despite the lack of ideal opportunities for trialing this sort of technology, however, it seems that the party still didn’t pursue quality assurance testing to the extent that it could have—particularly since Shadow is a new company that otherwise appears to focus on voter-texting technology. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Iowa Democratic officials declined offers from the Department of Homeland Security to run cybersecurity testing on the app. Ken Birman, a computer science professor at Cornell, suggests that there now needs to be federally mandated tests and audits for voting technologies, similar to how the government regulates air traffic control and electronic health record systems.

As the dust settles from the Iowa debacle, eyes are now turning towards the Nevada Democratic Party, which was reportedly planning to use the same app in its caucuses later this month but announced on Tuesday: “We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus. We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.” (The Nevada Democratic Party did not respond to Slate’s inquiry.) According to Jones, switching things up at this stage in the game could also be troublesome given that trainings, informational materials, and other preparations for the app’s use are likely already in motion in Nevada.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Correction, Feb. 4, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misspelled Hillary Clinton’s first name.