Talking tech since 2003

The Iowa Caucus mess casts a shadow over technology’s bright future in politics. The 2020 elections got off to a rocky start when software glitches and a healthy dose of user errors delayed and muddied the caucus results. While digital voting techniques show potential, this incident highlights their shortcomings.

Voting via technology isn’t anything new. Elections have used ballot-scanning machines as early as the 1960s, and in many areas, the voting process is entirely digital. As almost every other part of moves online, it would seem the logical next step is internet or smartphone voting.

The Iowa Democratic Party tried to bring its elections into the digital age to less-than-favorable results. Instead of relying on phone calls to report election results, precincts used an app called IowaReporter to capture and upload pictures of the results. In theory, it sounds like a solid plan, but it was in practice, it turned the Iowa Caucus into an argument against smartphone voting technology.

Mistakes and malfunctions

The Iowa Caucus suffered from a handful of issues, but a malfunctioning app was the centerpiece of the disaster. The Iowa Democratic Party’s used phones to call in results for decades but turned to a tech startup to make this election more efficient. The result was the IowaReporter App, which was still buggy and flawed when precincts started using it.

Caucus runners experienced difficulty logging into the app. It reportedly involved a complex login system, including PINs that expired before the polling even started. In some cases, when officials were able to get into it, the app reported different numbers than what the pictures showed.

Officials eventually abandoned the app in favor of old-fashioned phone calls, but even this didn’t turn out the way they’d intended. The flurry of calls backed up phone lines, which was worsened by 4chan users calling the election numbers to clog the lines intentionally. All of this, on top of untrained and ill-prepared volunteers, led to significant delays in tallying the results.

Results from IowaReporter didn’t match up with physical documents, and tallying errors also riddled the called-in and emailed results. The Associated Press could not declare a clear winner because of all the confusion and mistakes. It wasn’t technology’s best day in politics.

Shadow Inc.

The faulty IowaReporter App was the product of a company called Shadow Inc. If you’ve never heard of Shadow before the Iowa Caucus debacle, there’s a good reason. The company was less than half a year old by the time the polls opened.

The Iowa Democratic Party paid Shadow $60,000 to develop IowaReporter, but funding couldn’t make up for the rushed timeframe. With only a few months to produce a finished product, it’s no surprise that the startup rolled out a buggy and undertested app. Tech experts voiced concerns over the situation before the caucus began.

Rumors and possible signs of political bias also surround Shadow. Its chief investor, a nonprofit called Acronym, has significant ties to the Buttigieg campaign. Acronym’s CEO, Tara McGowan, has publicly supported Pete Buttigieg over Twitter, and Buttigieg’s campaign donated $42,000 to the company in July.

Acronym has since distanced itself from Shadow, editing their website to say they “invested in Shadow” instead of “launched Shadow.” Even if Shadow truly is free of any political ties, this situation raises some ethical questions about voting technology. How can officials be sure that tech companies’ biases carry over into their services?

The Trouble with tech

Technology has changed the face of politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tech has done a lot of good for democracy, from making donations easier to allowing candidates to interact with their supporters via social media. But a few roadblocks are keeping the digital revolution to take over the voting process.

To tech companies to preserve democracy, their services have to be free of bias. It may be easy enough to make an impartial computer program, but hackers can infiltrate networks and alter results without advanced security. Even apart from foul play, software is prone to bugs that could affect the process.

Tech may hold significant potential, but the rush to adopt it can cause problems. Many states are rushing to involve more technology in their elections, but as shown by the Iowa Caucus, perfecting tech can take time. 

Slow, careful integration of technology can make elections a smoother, more accurate process. But pushing to use services before they can prove their effectiveness will only lead to more problems.

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