American democracy can be confusing and messy. There is, perhaps, no better example than last night’s Iowa caucuses. The votes that kick off presidential primary season are, at once, a wonderful celebration of citizen participation in representative democracy and a rather complex system that remains a mystery to many of those outside the nation’s 31st most populous state.
It is, however, an extremely important one for presidential candidates who spend the months leading up to the event doing photo ops while awkwardly attempting to eat food from a stick. It’s the source of much momentum that can propel a candidate into the general public eye. As such, the chaos and uncertainty following last night’s voting are all the more troubling. The day after the long-awaited and much ballyhooed caucuses, no victor has been declared (though some appear to have already declared themselves).
At the center of the confusion is an app reportedly built by a for-profit company called “Shadow Inc.” According to reporting by The New York Times, the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party was “quickly put together in just the past two months” and not subjected to the kind of scrutiny one might traditionally reserve for software used in such an important statewide contest. The app is said to be a replacement for a system wherein caucus participants called in their election. The party reportedly paid Shadow around $63,000 in two installments to build one of its “affordable and easy-to-use tools.”
We reported on the crashed app and delay late last night. “We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson Mandy McClure said in a statement. “The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”
McClure was quick to point out that no evidence of a hack or other intrusion was found — an important point after the fallout from the 2016 election.
Shadow’s background is, fittingly, shrouded in some mystery. Digital nonprofit firm ACRONYM, which has been tied to Shadow, issued a statement late last night claiming to merely be an investor that didn’t provide any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party. “We, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party,” spokesperson Kyle Tharp said in a statement.
Language on ACRONYM’s about page has been changed from “In January 2019 we launched Shadow, a tech company focused on enabling organizers to run smarter campaigns” to “In January 2019, we invested in Shadow, a tech company focused on enabling organizers to run smarter campaigns” (emphasis ours).
A followup statement from the Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price chalks up the error to a “coding issue.”
As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.
Because of the required paper documentation, we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate. Precinct level results are still being reported to the IDP. While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld.
Price also echoes the early statement regarding hacking and insists that, in spite of reports of insignificant testing, the system was vetted by security experts.
“We have every indication that our systems were secure and there was not a cybersecurity intrusion,” he writes. “In preparation for the caucuses, our systems were tested by independent cybersecurity consultants.”
The LA Times notes that Shadow began life as Groundbase, which was founded by former Clinton 2016 digital campaign staffers Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis.
The unclear and uncertain nature of the situation has gone a ways toward fueling doubt among voters in a time when many are understandably already skeptical of the system.