Picture: 123RF / Nenetus
Picture: 123RF / Nenetus

Des Moines — The first signs of trouble in the Iowa Democratic caucuses emerged early on Monday afternoon when a handful of county chairs had problems downloading and logging onto a new app designed to report results.

“A lot of us are going to be doing it on paper and calling it in,” Kelcey Brackett, chair of the Muscatine County Democratic Party, told Bloomberg News on Monday afternoon. “The app was to most of the chairs a very new thing. They were looking forward to being able to use it, but we’re back to using pen and paper.”

Within hours, the glitches cited by local officials mushroomed into a statewide breakdown that by Tuesday morning had paralysed the nation’s first Democratic presidential nominating contest. The election debacle prompted questions about the integrity of Iowa’s caucus system and the technological competence of the Democratic Party, particularly in light of the Russian hacking and disinformation campaign directed at it in 2016.

Iowa Democratic Party officials emphasised that there was no “hack or intrusion” into the voting system. Yet inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results forced them to halt posting any outcome until late on Tuesday afternoon — almost 24 hours after voters first began gathering in churches, schools and gymnasiums to haggle over their choice for who would challenge President Donald Trump in November.

Iowa had rolled out the technology for the Democratic caucuses in 2020 with an eye on making its final tally more efficient and transparent, relying on a little-known company called Shadow  to develop the app for use across the state. Yet the party, which paid Shadow about $68,000 in two instalments between November and December, allowed precious little time for testing and vetting the software, according to cybersecurity experts.

“I’m really disappointed that some of our technology created an issue that made the caucus difficult,” Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira said late on Tuesday in his first interview after the caucus. “We feel really terrible about that.”

The disaster that unfolded overnight cast a pall on Iowa and its traditional position of holding the first presidential nominating contest, one that gives it outsized influence in shaping the early stages of the race. For the top four contenders — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden — the initial inconsistencies tainted the eventual outcome and created an opening for the Trump camp to cast doubts on the credibility of the process.

“The Democrat Party in Iowa really messed up, but the Republican Party did not,” Trump tweeted.

The scale of the problems became apparent as evening turned into night. While anecdotal accounts of vote tallies from caucus sites began to emerge on social media, the state’s reporting system remained silent regarding even initial results.

At about 10pm local time — two hours after the first tallies had been expected — the Iowa Democratic Party issued a statement that results were in hand from about 25% of precincts but that it was delaying disclosure for “quality checks”. Officials also said they needed more time to tabulate the outcome because the party was using three sets of numbers from caucuses, to ensure transparency in how results from more than 1,700 precincts translated into the final breakdown of 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July.

With the delays lasting deeper into the night, presidential candidates who had plans to travel to New Hampshire to campaign for its upcoming primary were growing antsy. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar was the first candidate to take the stage and address anxious supporters.

“We know there’s delays but we know one thing: we are punching above our weight,” Klobuchar said from a Marriott hotel in Des Moines. “Let’s stay up, let’s stay happy, and let’s head to New Hampshire.”

‘Simply a reporting issue’

The state party finally addressed the problem at about 10.30pm in Iowa, issuing a statement as supporters of the various candidates gathered. “This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results,” the party said in a statement.

By then, stories of reporting nightmares were filtering out from across the state. One precinct chair said he hadn’t been able to report his results because the app wasn’t working and he had been on hold for 30 minutes.

Shawn Sebastian, the caucus secretary for a precinct in Story County, was on hold with the state party for an hour trying to report results because of app problems. Party officials came on the phone while he was being interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who asked Sebastian to report his precinct’s results while he was on air. He agreed but by the time he turned back to the state party, officials had hung up on him.

The lack of results allowed the candidates some leeway — several declared a victory of sorts.

“Tonight, Iowa chose a new path,” Buttigieg said.

Sanders’s campaign released internal polling data that declared him a winner, and Biden’s campaign manager declared it a “great night”, with his candidate over-performing in key districts.

Behind the scenes, the mood was less jovial. In a late-night call, the Iowa Democratic Party basically read its statement to campaign representatives noting “inconsistencies” in the results. The campaign representatives started asking questions and then got angry, according to officials on the call.

By Tuesday morning, there weren’t many more answers, but questions were focusing on the company behind the app and the party’s process for vetting it.

A top Homeland Security Department official said his agency had offered to help Iowa Democrats test the new app for cybersecurity flaws, but that state party officials had declined. “No-one hacked into it — so this is more of a stress or load issue as well as a reporting issue that we’re seeing in Iowa,” acting department secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News.

But Troy Price, the state party leader, said on Tuesday that “I have no knowledge of the Department of Homeland Security making that offer to us”. Shadow finally issued a statement just after 2pm eastern time on Tuesday, expressing regret for the reporting delays and the uncertainty it caused.

“The goal of the app was to ensure accuracy in a complex reporting process,” the company said in a Twitter thread. “We take these issues very seriously, and are committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party’s goal of modernising its election processes.”

It was a thread that prompted dozens of snarky remarks.

“It’s cool,” wrote Marie Connor, a Boston comedian tweeting as @thistallawkgirl. “I don’t think anyone noticed.”

Bloomberg