Carl Voss, Des Moines City Councilman and a precinct chair, shows photographers the app that was used for caucus results reporting on his phone after he unsuccessfully attempted to drop off a caucus results packet from Precinct 55 at the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters, on Feb. 4, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
A buggy new smartphone app delayed the results of the Iowa caucuses nearly an entire day, blunting the effect of the first contest in the Democratic presidential nominating race and sowing confusion in the deadlocked race.
The states Democratic Party planned to finally release partial returns at 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET) Tuesday, some 21 hours after the caucuses began. The campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren said their internal numbers showed their candidates at the top of the field, with Joe Biden trailing. If true, the result would represent a body blow to the former vice-president, once the races front-runner, and leave the race deadlocked ahead of next weeks New Hampshire primary.
The embarrassing technology debacle, which played out live on national television, revived persistent calls for Iowa to lose its status as the first to vote and to reform its archaic caucus process. The mobile app was being used for the first time in Mondays caucuses. It was designed to allow officials at the nearly 1,700 caucus locations across the state to transmit their results back to party headquarters more quickly.
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In previous years, results were phoned into headquarters. But the app quickly malfunctioned. Some party operatives couldnt download it to their phones as intended. Others received error messages when they tried to input results.
Officials reverted to phoning in their results instead, only to be left on hold for hours as party headquarters struggled to handle the call volume. With U.S. President Donald Trump set to deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday night, and likely to be acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial Wednesday, the Democrats had hoped to use Iowa to start building excitement toward defeating him in November. Instead, the party was left trying to explain how it had failed to run an election.
Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said the problem with the app was a software glitch and it had not been hacked. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system, Mr. Price said in a statement Tuesday.
The app by Shadow Inc. was created out of Groundbase, a platform developed for Hillary Clintons 2016 presidential campaign, Gerard Niemira, chief executive officer of the Denver-based app maker, wrote in a January, 2019, post on Medium.
Mr. Niemira had previously worked at Kiva, a non-profit platform that provides microloans to small businesses in developing countries. Other Shadow co-founders had backgrounds at companies such as Google and Apple.
The technology was developed to be an accessible and user-friendly, but more affordable option to the expensive political campaign software already on the market, Mr. Niemira wrote. It promised to help campaigns with getting data where it needs to go when it needs to go there, saving organizers hours of work and reducing the risk of mistakes and lost data.
Shadow Inc. announced last year that it had been acquired by Acronym, a digitally focused non-profit consulting firm and political action committee created by former staffers from Barack Obamas campaign that is focused on electing progressive Democratic candidates.
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In a statement on Tuesday, Acronym said it was only an investor in Shadow and was not involved in developing the app. Acronym is a non-profit organization not a technology company, organization spokesperson Kyle Tharp said. We are reading confirmed reports of Shadows work with the Iowa Democratic Party on Twitter, and we, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party with respect to what happened.
Shadow on Tuesday issued an apology on Twitter, saying the company regrets the uncertainty the glitch caused.
We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last nights Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers.
Shadow, Inc. (@ShadowIncHQ) February 4, 2020
Greg Wolf, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said the app failure is only the latest in a long line of government technological problems. When Obamacare took effect, its signature portal for buying health insurance,, famously malfunctioned for months. And several states have had problems with touch-screen voting machines; in Mississippi last year, for instance, glitches with the machines caused some voters to accidentally pick the wrong candidates.
It seems like every time a state tries to introduce new technology, it doesnt go swimmingly well. They never really work of their first try, Prof. Wolf said in an interview. In light of all the criticism Iowa gets, everything had to go pretty smoothly for it to keep its status as first in the nation. This certainly doesnt help that cause for 2024.
The chaos in Iowa raised fears that similar problems could plague the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22, which follow a similar format and where organizers had also promised to incorporate new app-based reporting technology this year.
Federal election spending records showed the Nevada state Democratic Party paid US$58,000 to Shadow last year. But in a statement Tuesday, the state party said it would not be using the same technology or the same app maker used in Iowa to report the results of its own caucuses.
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NV Dems can confidently say that what happened in the Iowa caucus last night will not happen in Nevada on Feb. 22, Nevada State Democratic Party chair William McCurdy II said in a statement Tuesday. The state party had developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.
Jenny Murray, a captain at a rural precinct in Creston, Iowa, told The Globe and Mail the app wouldnt allow her to transmit her results.
She resorted to reporting by telephone. Even after Ms. Murray and other officials had revealed their numbers to headquarters, the party did not immediately release them.
Everyone called them in, but we have no results, she said. The party on Tuesday opted to collect paper voter cards, recording the numbers of votes for each candidate at each caucus site, and manually count them, to compare with the results received by phone and some partial results registered by the app.
Paxton Farrar, another precinct captain, said the party did not appear to realize how much development and testing typically has to go into building a successful app. It is a significant undertaking that requires a lot of iterations with a lot of people working on it, he said. I dont think it was wise to put so much on this.
The party developed the app secretively in a period of mere weeks. In an interview last month with National Public Radio, Mr. Price refused to say what company had designed the app or what security measures were in place. The New York Times reported that the app never underwent statewide testing. Mr. Trump took to Twitter to mock his rivals.
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The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works, just like they ran the Country, he tweeted. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is Trump.
For others, the imbroglio revived questions about the entire premise of the Iowa caucuses. The state of 3.2 million people is more than 90 per cent white and much more rural than the rest of the country, making it unrepresentative of the broader electorate. And the caucuses themselves are a laborious process that leads to low turnout. Voters gather at schools and community centres across the state, where they debate and discuss sometimes for hours before choosing a candidate by gathering in groups on different sides of the room.
Yes, the app, the wait times on the hotline, and the delay in results are all bad. But eventually we will get accurate results, tweeted Shawn Sebastian, a precinct official in the college town of Ames. The biggest problems with the Iowa caucus are structural, predictable, and baked in before any of us even got into the room last night. Mr. Sebastian himself took to posting results on Twitter Monday night when he couldnt get through to party headquarters.
The results released by the campaigns give Mr. Sanders an expected boost, while allowing Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren to stay in the race after they both pulled out better-than-expected showings. And they are brutal for Mr. Biden, who appeared to finish just slightly ahead of fifth-place Amy Klobuchar.
Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur running a long-shot nomination campaign built on promises to help the country adapt to disruptive technological change, found some humour in the mess. It might be helpful to have a President and government that understand technology, he tweeted, so this sort of thing doesnt happen.
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