“I had heard concerns about the app, in particular that people didn’t know much about it and that there was a lot of secrecy around it,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program at New York University School of Law. “Even for the people who were supposed to be using it, there was very little training, and there was certainly no public testing of the app.”
Even worse, the Iowa Democrats’ phone lines, which were supposed to be the fail-safe for the app, went down. Precinct leaders reported hours-long hold times and issues with their calls being disconnected. It seems that the hotline was expecting fewer calls than in previous years because of the app. Instead, the app actually increased call volume, as frustrated precinct managers tried to figure out what had gone wrong.
Despite all of this, the results should be sound. Every caucus vote was recorded on paper, meaning that officials will be able to verify that their final digital tallies line up with the actual results.
“In this case in Iowa I don’t think anyone will need to doubt what the results are,” says Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a group that promotes election system best practices. “Those were recorded; those were preserved according to the caucus procedures that they’ve been following for a long time. But the reporting mechanism failed. People have to think carefully about what the impact is going to be when introducing tech into voting.”
Monday night’s debacle underscores the stakes of debuting new technology in elections and the inherent risks of layering more tech into systems to solve problems rather than looking for their root cause.
“Technology can help, but it usually comes with added risks,” says Ben Adida, executive director VotingWorks, a nonprofit maker of voting machines. “So any introduction of technology should come with a cost-benefit analysis. And when we do introduce technology in the foundational layer of our democracy, it should be broadly vetted, load tested, security reviewed, and open source.” None of which appears to have happened in Iowa.
For years, the election security community has stressed the need for paper backups in normal voting machines. And yet a rush to embrace certain digital technologies has left many states around the country with at least some precincts that use voting machines without a paper backup. A recent report from the Brennan Center estimates that 16 million votes will be cast with no paper backup at all in the 2020 presidential election. If any of those counties run into problems similar to Iowa’s, they’ll have no fail-safe for confirming results.
“A lot of states already use internet voting. West Virginia is already using a mobile app for military and overseas voters,” Verified Voting’s Schneider says. The state plans to expand app voting to include disabled citizens as well. “This is a very cautionary tale for doing so. We shouldn’t be doing that. I think this shows that we’re not ready.”
Iowa will bounce back from its Monday mess. State officials said they’d have official results by 5 pm EST on Tuesday. But in an already turbulent election cycle, the meltdown shows how easy it would be to create instability by spreading misinformation or calling a voting system’s integrity into question. On Monday night alone, rumors and conspiracy theories quickly popped up to fill the void as everyone—from voters to politicians to the media—awaited results they thought would come quickly. In elections, most of all, speed should not come at the cost of accuracy.
“Imagine this operational failure where we don’t have individual voter-verified paper ballots to go back to,” says VotingWorks’ Adida. “That would require nothing short of rerunning the election. But we have locally verified paper records of the caucus tallies, so we should all take a deep breath. We’re going to be OK.”
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