What caused the Iowa app debacle, and why election tech leaders say it won’t happen in Seattle

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(Facebook Photo / Iowa Democrats)

The technical difficulties in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses Monday are being closely watched by companies developing new app-based election technologies, including a pilot slated to be rolled out in a Seattle-area election in a matter of days. But they say they’re confident they can avoid the types of problems that delayed reporting in the high-profile Iowa election.

“From what we know, the app used in the IA Democratic Caucuses was brand new, untested and created in secrecy,” said Bradley Tusk, the venture capitalist and philanthropist whose organization funds mobile voting pilots, in a message to GeekWire. “This couldn’t be in more stark contrast to the eight pilots we have completed transparently, safely and securely.”

Tusk Philanthropies has partnered with election tech vendors, like Seattle’s Democracy Live, to roll out mobile voting pilots across the country. King County, home to Seattle, Bellevue and other tech-oriented communities, is preparing to test the first election-wide mobile voting pilot. On Feb. 11, 1.2 million registered voters in the region will have the option to vote with their smartphones in the King County Conservation District’s Board of Supervisors election.

In the hours following the Iowa caucuses, as the winning Democrat remained an open question, election tech organizations elsewhere across the country sought to distance themselves from the confusion. Leaders of those organizations described the approach in Iowa as unorthodox, and said it does not reflect the broader election tech landscape. But at a time when American confidence in election security and Big Tech is low, the issues in Iowa could have a lasting impact on voter confidence in new election technology.

The mobile app that reportedly caused issues in Iowa was developed to help precinct officials collect and report results of their caucuses. Some of those officials reported problems using the app, one of a series of issues that delayed reporting.

Shadow Inc. developed the app for the Iowa Democratic Party, according to Huffington Post. Shadow’s website advertises “affordable and easy-to-use tools for teams and budgets of any size” for progressive political organizations. Party officials had not publicly disclosed the name of the vendor or other details about the app as of Tuesday morning.

Democracy Live CEO Bryan Finney said the Iowa incident might’ve been avoided with proper testing. The Seattle-based company is providing the mobile ballots in King County’s upcoming election.

Democracy Live CEO Bryan Finney at a U.N. presentation in NYC. (Democracy Live Photo)

“When you’re trying to pioneer new types of technologies, you’re going to hit some speed bumps and that’s why you’ve got to really pay attention to how you roll out new technologies,” he said. “Typically you want to start small and be responsible about how you do it … as we all know, the eyes of the world were upon Iowa and that’s a difficult place to have a coming-out party.”

Finney said he had never heard of Shadow Inc. before the Iowa caucuses, despite being tapped into the election tech industry.

The issues in Iowa were apparently caused, in part, by Shadow Inc.’s app, but they were not attributable to mobile voting. The app was designed for reporting results, not casting ballots. But the nuance may be lost on voters, who are wary of the security risks associated with election technology.

Paper-based voting is typically considered more secure because the risks are known and there is a clear audit trail. But paper voting has its limitations too, according to Tusk. He cited the U.S. presidential election in 2000, when partially completed punched cards led to disputed results:

If it wasn’t clear already, our entire system of voting is broken. It needs to be taken apart and put back together. We need better systems. Paper ballots brought us hanging chads (and, as a result, the Iraq War), so they clearly don’t work. Unsecure voting machines are far too vulnerable to hacking, so that’s not an option. We need better approaches. We need to stop relying on outdated approaches like caucusing in gyms or having people congregate around a bunch of voting machines in a school basement. We need to stop worrying about not offending anyone invested in the current system. We need to stop putting responsibility for our elections on the backs of party loyalists. And we need to ensure that every new idea is tested, transparent and secure – just like the eight successful mobile voting pilots conducted to date. Enough is enough. 2016 should have been enough of a wakeup call. Iowa just confirmed it.

Microsoft developed a precinct reporting app for the Iowa caucuses in 2016 but chose to focus on other election security priorities this year. Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s head of communications, said the company was not involved in this year’s caucuses in a tweet.

There were hints that Shadow’s app could have issues prior to the Iowa caucuses, according to CNN. An official in the Democratic party told reporters that precinct managers were having difficulty using the app during a test, days before the election. Raja Mukerji, co-founder of the Seattle data security firm ExtraHop, cited a lack of testing and rush to market as the primary reasons for the setback in Iowa.

“While it’s easy to look for a single neck to wring, ultimately, this is a failure of process,” he said. “Something this important should not be rushed to market on this tight a timeline with clearly deficient quality assurance measures.”

Nevada originally planned to use the same app in its February 22 caucuses, but state party officials have changed course following Iowa’s election. The Iowa Democratic Party plans to release more than 50 percent of caucus results Tuesday by 5 p.m. ET.

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