February 3rd, 2020, the kickoff of the Democratic Primary season at the Iowa Caucuses, will go down as a dark day in American politics.
After months of anticipation, the first event at which delegates would be awarded for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President, technical glitches and poor planning left candidates, caucus-goers, and voters across the country confused about who actually won, with results trickling in over days rather than hours. The mishandling of such a pivotal moment must not be played down. As soon as reports were delayed, the integrity of the caucuses was compromised. Outbursts from the left and right side of the aisle, and all over twitter, speculated on hacks, corruption, or foreign intervention. Iowan’s take their “responsibility” as the first state very seriously. But unfortunately, the Iowa Caucuses, while unique and an immensely interesting historical artifact, are severely outdated. If it wasn’t clear already, America is in need of a change.
I’d like to be able to claim this is likely the final year of the Iowa Caucuses, but America is known to lag when removing outdated legacies. It’s just funny this happened due to a failed attempt at technological innovation.
The dissolution of the Iowa caucuses has been called for for years now. The caucuses are difficult to participate in, as many potential voters have to work, or live in remote places, like, you know, not the state of Iowa. There are 99 precincts in Iowa that held caucuses; an additional 100 satellite caucuses were set up for Iowans who couldn’t make it to their local high school gym.
Many Americans, including candidates, have emphasized that the Iowa caucuses are not “representative” of a national campaign. The most recent estimate of the population of Iowa, as reported by the US Census Bureau, is 3.1 million people, 90.7% of which is white. No minority group accounts for more than 4% of that 3.1 million. The lack of caucus representation was particularly upsetting to the Asian community, which accounts for only 2.7% of Iowa’s population.
This is extremely troubling, as numerous reports are showing Asian-Americans voters will play a key role in the 2020 election. Asian voter turnout has historically underperformed among minority groups, and Democrats are looking to capture their support to cause a swing reminiscent of the party’s congressional takeover at the 2018 midterms.
The Iowa Caucuses also brought up concerns about how to implement technological advancements in future elections. Clearly, the app used to transmit vote totals was nowhere near ready. Among the litany of issues uncovered in the caucuses’ aftermath: The app was built in 2 months. Not a dealbreaker, but definitely a red flag. The app was released the day before the caucuses. The Iowa Democratic Party instructed Caucus Chairs to download the app, which was not on any major app store, to their personal phones to report their results.
I don’t know what I’m more concerned about, the blasé disregard for the security of personal devices, or the naiveté in assuming rural Iowans would be able to download and navigate an APK with no training or assistance. The app’s developer, Shadow, has done work for Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, and was also hired by Nevada’s Democratic Party to build an app for their upcoming caucuses, too. The Nevada Democrats announced Tuesday they would no longer be using Shadow’s technology. So there’s that.
Finally, the failure did not just lie in the app’s inability to function, but also in the delays caused when representatives tried to call in their votes. The backup telecommunications line to verbally deliver results, which consisted of one phone number, was the same telephone line as the one used for the app’s troubleshooting service. This was a huge operational oversight. It also brings up a serious question on cyber security in America. Cyber security is not just protecting against hackers or malware, it’s about ensuring that your data gets to and stays where it’s meant to be. This means cyber security is not just defending digital assets but also defending the digital aspects of your physical assets. There has to be beta testing, and there have to be contingency plans. The fact that neither took place is a major concern, not just to Democrats, but to America at large.
When it comes to America’s elections, we want efficiency not efficacy. While this may be a proving ground for candidates, it is not the proving ground for poorly designed software. As we look ahead to the upcoming New Hampshire primary, I am excited to focus on a debate and not a whirlwind of media coverage around a cataclysmic nonoccurrence.
Photo Credit: NBC News