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Ethics Week 5: Let’s Talk About Iowa

My post this week was going to be about how people use libraries and the information they contain.

Then Iowa happened.

So this week, we’re summarizing the technological debacle that was Monday’s Iowa caucus. What happened? Did anyone expect it? How did this come about?

A quick overview

In brief: in the Iowa caucus, people go to their precinct and vote for the candidate they want. The precinct then reports the totals in, so they can be counted up and people can figure out who got the most votes. In the past, the totals have been reported over the phone lines, but this year, the Iowa Democratic Party decided to commission a phone app from the tech company Shadow, Inc. to report the results. The Nevada Democratic Party also helped pay for the app’s development, hoping to use it for their upcoming caucus on February 22nd (this plan has since been scrapped).

Some important things to note, first and foremost: this project was commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party, not the Democratic National Committee; the app was for reporting caucus results, not for voting electronically; and, while there were security concerns, the primary issues were with the app’s performance.

The app, whose name I can’t find (various sources call it ‘the Shadow app’, ‘the app’, or ‘the app from Shadow, Inc.’), was still in development this past weekend — meaning, days before the primary. In the tech world, this might not be too unusual: it’s pretty standard for games and apps to release patches in the early days after their release date. But for voting technology, that’s not an acceptable practice.

So what’s the problem?

Security was the obvious concern with the app, and has been since at least mid-January, when NPR put out a piece on the app’s development. It’s hard to get a general impression of the app’s security features, because the chairman of the Iowa State Party, Troy Price, declined to give any details on tests it might have undergone, companies that might have checked it, or issues they might have found. His goal was to avoid leaking information that might entice hackers, but many cybersecurity experts say that “security through obscurity” isn’t actually an effective countermeasure against hacking.

That said, while the app’s poor performance definitely raised security concerns (it was meant to be used on the personal devices of the volunteers running the caucus), the main issue was just that: poor performance. The app was apparently hard to find, difficult to download, and glitchy.

While the Iowa Democratic Party claimed it would have backup procedures in place, they weren’t prepared for the volume of failures. When caucus organizers gave up on the app and decided to report results the old-fashioned way, over the phone lines, the sheer volume of calls blocked most people from getting through, which contributed to the delay in results.

So what now?

Well, Nevada’s not going to be using the app. Iowa’s results have been checked against a paper trail, which was pretty foreseeable given the scrutiny this incident has caused.

There are some upsides: Iowa was considering implementing smartphone voting for this caucus, but nixed that idea a while ago. The question of election security is also front and central, and hopefully people will be more cautious of tech’s place in the democratic process going forward.

Also, just in case you were worried about what this incident means for the company behind the app, Shadow, Inc. released a tweet stating that they “regret the delay… and the uncertainty it caused” and that “[they] will apply the lessons learned in the future”.

And as always, XKCD has a comic for this.


“Iowa’s caucus app was a disaster waiting to happen”, Zach Whittaker, TechCrunch.

“Despite Election Security Fears, Iowa Caucuses Will Use New Smartphone App”, Kate Payne and Miles Parks, NPR.

“The Shoestring App Developer Behind the Iowa Caucus Debacle”, Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman, and Alexa Corse, The Wall Street Journal.

“What We Know About The App That Delayed Iowa’s Caucus Results”, Avie Schneider, NPR.

Shadow, Inc.’s Twitter Statement:

“Voting Software”, Randall Munroe, XKCD.

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