Iowa’s 2020 Democratic caucus has app problems

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On Monday, Iowa held its first-in-the-nation caucus for the 2020 presidential election. Unfortunately, things went awry from a technological standpoint.

Only the Shadow app knows… its problems

An app used by the Democrats to help tally and report election results suffered from serious glitches. As a result, election results were delayed until Tuesday, when part of the results were released. Fortunately, the party had paper backups.

There’s no outside interference suspected with the app—apparently, it’s merely the result of a lack of thorough testing beforehand, plus being put together only a few months ago. The party also kept the app’s existence/usage fairly secret until recently, which alarmed some cybersecurity experts (since “security through obscurity” isn’t an ideal practice). The app’s name is “Shadow,” and it was created by a Democratic-tied nonprofit startup company called ACRONYM. Admittedly, just the names alone aren’t helping sell things or quell online grumbling about all of this.

Nevada had planned on using the app for its primary, but unsurprisingly, that’s been dropped. I suspect the same will go across the board, including for next week’s primary in New Hampshire.

There’s also concerns how all of this might affect other plans to trial voting by smartphone apps. West Virginia plans to allow for app-based voting by those with disabilities. King County, Washington (home of Seattle and most of its suburbs) will allow voters on February 11 to use their smartphones to vote in the conservation district’s board of supervisors election.

The problems with primaries

Vote Here/Vote Aqui election sign
Flickr photo by Erik Hersman

As for the idea of primaries/caucuses, all this also draws attention to the flaws behind Iowa as the “first in the nation.” Caucuses already have their problems; from my experience being in a Washington State caucus, they’re very time-consuming, plus require convincing complete strangers in a limited amount of time/means. (Fortunately, Washington is switching to a standard primary for the 2020 election.)

There’s also issues with emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire being the first in the country with caucuses/primaries. Particularly, the two states’ demographics aren’t representative of the United States as a whole. Per the US Census, Iowa’s population is 85.3% non-Hispanic White, while New Hampshire’s is 90%. (The US as a whole is 60.4%.)

A better solution (among the various other ways of fixing how US elections work) would be to hold all primaries the same day, just like for the general election. It’d:

  • Be inclusive of all states, versus latter-voting states getting little say-so in nominees.
  • Not place disproportionate emphasis on a few demographically unrepresentative states.
  • Help shorten the already-excessively-long election cycle. (By comparison, Canada’s most recent election ran from September 11 to October 21, 2019.)

Also, paper-based voting systems should be used, rather than electronic-only ones without any paper trail (which some states appallingly still use).


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