The Real Problems With the Iowa Caucuses’ ‘Shadow’ App

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

What the hell happened on Monday in Iowa? As the dust (sort of) settles on a frustrating and chaotic caucus process, a singular villain has emerged: IowaReporterApp, a new smartphone app created by a company called Shadow, Inc., and deployed last night to tabulate and report results from the caucuses. IowaReporterApp was apparently difficult to use, and misreported some numbers, and it (and Shadow) has been widely blamed for the delay in official results, and in turn for a calamity so visible, and so bad, that it might end Iowa’s prized place as the first primary contest.

Iowa was an object lesson in why the introduction of new technology into our election system is generally a bad idea. But to blame the entire catastrophe of Monday night on IowaReporterApp, I think, misses the forest for one particularly menacing copse of trees. The IowaReporterApp exists in a thriving network of failure and stupidity, one that extends far beyond the simple technical misfire of a single app. What should scare Americans about the events of Monday night isn’t simply that we’re leaving important elements of the political process in the hands of untested and insecure technologies, but also that those technologies are being inserted into the heart of a system with so little resiliency that even minor, surmountable problems can send the entire media-political complex into meltdown mode — technical failures being amplified by institutional failures being amplified by communications failures, cascading over one another in a breathtaking display of panicked incompetence.

So, what happened?

The app failed.

Just to underline it: The app definitely failed. The Iowa Democratic Party insists that the problems it faced with the app were “not a hack or an intrusion,” and there’s very little besides idle speculation to suggest that there was some nefarious external threat seeking to disrupt or fix the caucus. But the bottom line is: The app did not work the way it was supposed to. Some precinct leaders (the volunteers responsible for tabulating and reporting results) reported being kicked out of the app after logging in; others were unable to log in at all.

Worse, according to Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price, the app was “reporting out only partial data,” a problem he attributed to “a coding issue in the reporting system.” It’s not clear what this means specifically, and because few details about the app itself have been reported, it’s hard to guess, but it seems safe to say that a data-reporting app should probably report data, instead of only sort of report data.

The Iowa Democrats failed.

But! It also seems clear that the app’s apparent technical failure was only one element in the overall catastrophe — in part because many precinct leaders didn’t bother downloading it. According to the Times:

According to more than a dozen Iowa Democratic Party officials, county chairmen and volunteers involved in running precincts, many precinct leaders ignored the party’s request that they download the app before caucus night or found the process of installing it too cumbersome. […] John Grennan, 44, the Democratic chairman in Poweshiek County, said seven of the 10 people running precincts in his central Iowa county never downloaded the state party’s app to begin with, choosing instead to phone in results as they always had.

These precinct leaders, as it turned out, were prescient and correct in declining to download or use this brand-new app, and choosing instead to phone in their results as had been the historical norm. This should have been a cheering development. The ordinary people who staffed the caucuses, many of whom had experience leading precincts and reporting results, had implicitly understood the risk of the app, and decided to rely on a fail-safe: the phone line.

But a fail-safe has to be, you know, safe from failure. The Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have adequately anticipated the volume of calls its hotlines would be receiving — leading to some precinct leaders spending hours on hold, waiting to report their results. The technical failure of the app was bad, but it was made that much worse by the administrative failure of the Iowa Democratic Party.

To compound the problems of the inconsistent app and the understaffed phone lines was a new caucusing process requiring precinct leaders to maintain and report official first, second, and final counts through the process. Initial statements from the Iowa Democratic Party on Monday night suggested that this new obligation contributed to the delay in reporting, distinct from any particular technical failures: “We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson Mandy McClure said, a “reporting issue” that she seemed to indicate was unrelated to the app itself.

The news media failed.

The thing is, in a vacuum, none of this is necessarily the end of the world (or even the end of the Iowa caucus system). The app and reporting process failed, yes, but there was a backstop: “In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results,” McClure said in a statement, “we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to value that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report.” A paper trail of the kind McClure is describing is an absolute necessity for any electronic voting system, and Iowa did the right thing here. If we’d had to wait patiently until Tuesday afternoon — or even Wednesday — to hear final results, at least we could have been satisfied that they are accurate and transparent. Given proper evidence of election integrity and transparency (such as the existence of a paper trail), the rational response to the late announcement that the results would be delayed is to go to bed.

Unless, of course, you have hours of airtime to fill. Having hyped, for untold tedious hours, the eventual announcement of newsworthy information (that is, the results of the Iowa caucus), the major cable news outlets found themselves suddenly unmoored by the revelation that no such information would be forthcoming. What followed was an embarrassing display of panic-inducing cluelessness and wild speculation, as Allison Benedikt documented for Slate:

With the news team starting to get desperate from the lack of news, it was time for the network’s pundits to chip in some opinions about information they didn’t have. At first, the panel did its best to fill the time with inane stories of Iowa caucus hijinks past, but eventually they too lapsed into panic mode, with Van Jones at one point just reading a tweet off his phone that he said was from a precinct captain who couldn’t get his app to work. Was this person actually a precinct captain, or just a troublemaker online? Jones admitted he had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from reading the tweet live on air.

The energy was infectious! Crisis coverage is what CNN does best, and the absence of news itself became a crisis. Soon, a CNN reporter was quoting an Elizabeth Warren insider who said that the longer this night goes on, “they worry the process loses credibility.” Aha! The people of Iowa had just watched one another choose candidates publicly, with the numbers written down on big sheets of paper, but if the numbers didn’t reach CNN, perhaps none of it had really happened at all. Things are taking longer than expected, and we all know what that means. Don’t just take it from me and the Warren person and CNN.

On Twitter, impatience for concrete results was transformed into speculation, rumormongering, and misreporting. Just as the effects of the technical failure of the app were made worse by the administrative failures of the Iowa Democratic Party, the administrative failures of the Iowa Democratic Party were exacerbated by a frivolous and theatrical 24-hour media apparatus spanning cable news and social media. (I sort of hesitate to call them “failures” because it seems as though cable channels and social networks were mostly doing what they are designed to do, which is occupy people’s attention.) The addressable failure of an app was successfully transformed into a catastrophe likely to end the privileged Iowa caucus system for good.

As outcomes go, that’s not necessarily so bad, and it’s not as though the Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t deserve it. But there’s no reason to think that this cascade of technical, institutional, and media failure isn’t easily replicable, especially at larger scales. We worry a lot about the failure of voting technology of various kinds, but the technology is just one node in what’s right now a very fragile network. A working democracy should be able to manage a broken app in its electoral process with a robust system of trusted institutions, reliable fail-safes, and healthy and responsible news coverage. Until we fix the rest of it, the apps are only one of many problems.

The Real Problems With the Iowa Caucuses’ ‘Shadow’ App