What We Know About the App That Broke the Iowa Caucus

“I don’t think it’s possible to salvage it.”​
February 4, 2020, 4:23pm
Volunteers tally votes during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus at the Southridge Mall in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

What broke the Iowa caucus? The answer, it seems, is an app.

The Iowa Democratic Party contracted with a firm called Shadow Inc. to build an app to help caucus chairs count and report results to the state party. Given new rules mandating that three different vote totals be released at the same time, the app was viewed as an easier alternative to reporting numbers by phone from nearly 1,700 locations around the state.

That did not happen. Because so many precinct chairs couldn’t get the app to work or bypassed using it altogether in favor of calling results in, phone lines were overwhelmed, leaving some caucus officials on hold for over an hour.

And so for the third time in recent memory, the Iowa Caucus is experiencing a systemic failure. This comes two cycles after Mitt Romney was incorrectly called the winner of the Iowa Caucus over Rick Santorum in 2012, and the disputed 2016 caucus ended in a virtual tie between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, setting off recriminations that led to the more complicated system that failed Monday night.

What is this app?

Shadow Inc. was formed after the progressive digital nonprofit ACRONYM acquired the company Groundbase, according to a January 2019 tweet from ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan.

ACRONYM spokesman Kyle Tharp described the organization as an "investor" in Shadow in a statement Monday.

"We are reading confirmed reports of Shadow's 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,” Tharp said.

Tharp didn't immediately respond to VICE News' phone call and text message seeking additional comment.

READ: And the biggest loser of the Iowa caucus is ... Iowa

Shadow says it’s run by veterans of the Obama and Clinton campaigns as well as companies and groups such as Apple, Google, the AFL-CIO, and the Democratic National Committee. The company calls itself “Shadow” because, according to the website, the company sees itself as building a long-term, side-by-side “Shadow” of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large.

The company has worked with multiple state parties as well as campaigns. The Iowa Democratic Party paid Shadow, listed at a Washington D.C. address, $44,666 in November and another $18,517 in December, according to Iowa state campaign finance reports. The company has also taken a $58,000 payment from the Nevada State Democratic Party, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Nevada is reportedly using the same app in its caucus on February 22; the Nevada Democratic Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company has also done work for the campaigns of former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as the Texas and Wisconsin Democratic parties and the labor union-backed super PAC For Our Future, according to FEC filings.

What went wrong?

The app was “quickly put together in just the past two months” and wasn’t “properly tested at a statewide scale,” according to the New York Times. There was also no app-specific training for precinct chairs, the Times reported.

When precinct results began coming in and the Iowa Democratic Party began running them through a “quality control check,” it became obvious that something was wrong, according to an Iowa Democratic Party statement.

READ: Everyone but Biden is claiming victory in Iowa's screwed up caucuses

"As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound," the Iowa Democratic Party said. "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."

Because the party had a "pre-planned backup measure" to enter data manually, the IDP said, they were "able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate."

Some of the reported problems stem not from the app not working, but users being unable to login or report data. “I tried to use the app as a caucus chair and I couldn't make it work,” Biden supporter and caucus chairman Mark Gittenstein told VICE News on Monday night. “So I had to call it in.”

The problem was that “calling it in” meant dialing a number that other precincts were using around the same time. Polk County Democratic Party chairman Sean Bagniewski couldn’t get in touch with party headquarters via phone, and so he sent the party’s executive director over with pictures of the results saved to her phone, but she was turned away with no explanation, according to the New York Times.

Although there has been no evidence so far of hacking or malicious activity, acting Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolf claimed that the Iowa Democratic Party declined an offer from DHS to test the app to ensure cybersecurity in an interview with Fox and Friends on Tuesday morning.

“No one hacked into it, so this is more of a stress or load issue, as well as a reporting issue we’re seeing in Iowa,” Wolf said.

The response

In the chaos, some campaigns tried to seize control of the situation themselves.

A phone call between the campaigns and Iowa Democratic Party officials took place in which the party reportedly hung up after being pressed for more information. Around the same time, the Biden campaign released a letter calling for official results to not be released until the campaigns received a “full explanation” of what happened, as well as an opportunity to respond.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, claimed victory in a late-night speech. The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders responded by releasing its own count based on nearly 40 percent of precincts, which showed Sanders with an advantage over Buttigieg.

READ: Biden is in trouble with moderates — and it could kill his campaign

Finally, on late Monday night, IDP chair Troy Price held a brief “press call” in which he said the party was still working on it. And as of late Tuesday morning — as most other candidates are on their way to or already in New Hampshire to campaign ahead of that state’s primary next Tuesday — we’re still waiting to find out who won the most cursed Iowa caucus of all time.

“You can’t erase people’s memories of what happened. No matter what happens people are going to think, ’we have to take this with a grain of salt,’” said Katarina Keating, 21, a precinct captain for Bernie Sanders in east Waterloo, IA. “I don’t think it’s possible to salvage it.”

Cover: Volunteers tally votes during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus at the Southridge Mall in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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