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The Tech Disaster That Was the Iowa Caucuses

What led to the breakdown of the Iowa caucus app? Rushed technology and impulsive design flaws, according to cybersecurity experts.

Earlier this week, the smartphone app that became the subject of national scrutiny created an absolute disaster for the Iowa Democratic Party after “coding issues” led to significant reporting problems for caucus results.

With the world closely glued to their televisions and computer screens to hear what was supposed to be Monday’s results, the hour became later and later, until the unthinkable happened. By 11pm EST, zero results were reported with only partial results being released by the party on Tuesday. Something had gone colossally wrong.

According to cybersecurity experts who examined a version of the app that had been made public, there were a number of issues:

#1 — This App Had Never Been Used Before

Evidently, the smartphone app was being used for the first time in a scenario that affected the country.

The app, according to Gerard Niemira, the CEO of Shadow Inc., which developed the app for the Iowa Democratic Party, was supposed to be the “preferred” method for caucus chairs to submit results.

#2 — The Very Mechanics of the App

Of those developers who were able to look at a version of the app that was made public, two issues were immediately identified:

Data Reporting

One, a flaw in how the app was reporting data proved that the recorded results were far from accurate and consequently, not communicated back to the party.

User Download Experience

Two, the user-experience made the app difficult to use–beginning with its mere download for caucus chairs. Users were first required to download “TestFlight,” a separate app that developers often use to test new apps, which makes it easy for a company to invite users to test the apps, collecting what is supposed to be valuable feedback before the actual app is released publicly to the App Store.

As for Android users, they had to change device settings to be allowed to download the app.

Ineffective Training

However, State party officials indicated they had provided training before the caucus to precinct chairs, including hiring a dedicated training staffer to assist along with live troubleshooting the day of the caucus.

So, how could something like this occur?

#3 — Lack of Foresight in Communications

The Iowa caucus organizers admitted they “got the app late [in the process].” By 5:30pm on Monday night, February 3rd, many knew that the “great innovation” of this new app was completely defunct. And then people resorted to phones. The hotline number they were told to call was constantly busy. No one was able to call in their votes.

With an app that “was built relatively lean to strictly perform the functions that it set out to do,” as Thomas Moore, a security architect at Signal Hill Technologies put it, “the failure to catch the critical coding error beforehand showed that the system wasn’t fully tested.”

Moore’s firm is a cybersecurity firm headquartered in Virginia, which analyzed the version of the app that was made public.

Other experts, including Irfan Asrar, a threat analyst at Blue Hexagon in San Francisco, believed the app to be rushed.

“The coding failure created inconsistencies in how the vote totals were transferred from Shadow’s app to the IDP’s database and was the culprit for the delay,” Niemira said in a statement. “Once we discovered the issue, it was remediated and additional checks were performed on the underlying data to ensure its integrity.”

It has been determined that the lack of results was not because of a hack or any other intrusion, but because the party’s new- results app was “confusing and difficult to download,” said caucus officials. The lack of figures allowed for each of the candidates to declare themselves the outright winners at the end of the night, which certainly couldn’t have been true.

But what exactly did happen, you may be asking? Well, Cynthia McFadden, an NBC News Senior Legal and Investigative Correspondent explained that the Democrats wanted to have a new app to get faster results from the nearly 1,700 caucuses. The IDP, or Iowa Democratic Party also thought that using this app would allow them to be more transparent.

But in McFadden’s own words, “[it] didn’t turn out that way.”

Technology was no one’s friend in Iowa on the night of Monday, February 3rd, 2020. As these problems were happening, they were referred to as “inconsistencies” with the new app.

Due to these major technological glitches, the Democratic party is capable of losing a lot of credibility once a rightful winner is actually determined. This technological mishap is yet another example of the Dems’ lack of modern know-how.

This most recent kerfuffle is reminiscent of Obama’s initial unsuccessful roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and it motivated Trump’s “told ya’ so” tweet just following this voting mess. In all elections throughout the 2000s as well as this one, the delays in reporting rob the Iowa victors of their fun in the sun, as media attention and momentum are two things absent from a late win.