How Multiple System Failures Produced Debacle in Iowa Caucus
(Bloomberg) -- The Iowa Democratic Party will face tough questions Tuesday about how the technology and structure it designed for transparency and efficiency at its caucuses instead delivered neither.
The failure to produce a result came amid mounting concerns about election integrity in the United States.
The state party deployed a new phone app for precinct chairmen to report results at the same time it deployed a new system for tabulating winners. Both appear to have failed.
Precinct chairmen found it difficult to use the app to report results to party headquarters and instead resorted to calling a hotline. The hotline got so jammed up that they were waiting for 30 minutes or more for someone to answer. Then the party reported there were “inconsistencies” in the count and decided to withhold announcing results until at least Tuesday.
“The first time tech is used like this, there’s almost always glitches,” Herb Lin, a professor of cyber policy and security at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said. “It’s very hard to get it right the first time. The question now is what sort of testing was done before we got to the caucuses, was it realistic and was development rushed?”
Lin said that the new app was developed in the interest of speed but the result was the opposite. “We’re not there yet. The short answer is, ‘No, this technology wasn’t ready for election day.’”
Monday night’s problems cannot just be blamed on the machines.
In order to provide more visibility into the arcane math that goes into caucus results, this year the party asked precincts to report results from the first and second round of voting.
Precinct officials were prompted to report two data points each for at least 12 candidates, plus “other” and “uncommitted.” That’s 28 different data points, all being delivered via an app they had never used before.
In 1,765 precincts, enough people may have transposed numbers or otherwise gotten tripped up and it became a major headache.
After all that, the party had to tabulate a third number, called ‘state delegate equivalents,’ which is used to make an official result.
Then even the redundancies failed.
When questions about the app were raised earlier in the day, the party insisted that if users were uncomfortable, they could fall back to the old system of calling into a hotline, but the wait times were so long, some precinct chairs gave up.
All of that said, the quirky nature of the caucuses, where large numbers of people are counted together in public with a paper trail, means eventually clear results will emerge, some predicted.
“The delayed results and perception of chaos are embarrassing, but at least we’ll know the correct results soon, when all of the local results are finally communicated and cross checked,” J. Alex Halderman, professor of cybersecurity specializing in elections at the University of Michigan said.
He said the spectacle should serve as a cautionary tale about electronic and internet voting.
“Imagine how much worse things would be if people were actually voting online. We might never know who actually won, or they might have to scrap the entire process and start over. This is exactly why internet voting is not nearly ready for prime time,” he said.
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
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