Analysis: Political Parties Are Not as Good as Government Officials at Counting Votes
Most primaries are run by state and local governments. But caucuses are different — and Iowa shows how that can be a problem.
Here’s the takeaway from the Iowa fiasco: Beware of caucuses run by political parties. But don’t panic about the integrity of most primaries and the general election, which are run by state and county election administrators.
As Tuesday morning wore on without results from Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, the long-awaited first test of the strength of President Donald Trump’s would-be challengers, both public officials and enraged commentators stoked fears that Iowa was a harbinger of chaos for the rest of the 2020 campaign. Some said it raises alarms about the broader condition of election security and the reliability of computer systems that record, tally and publish the votes. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale even suggested on Twitter Monday, without evidence, that the process was “rigged.”
But there’s a marked difference between the Iowa caucuses and the upcoming primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the 14 state primaries on Super Tuesday. The Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses, much as its counterparts in Nevada, Wyoming and several territories will do in the next few months. Party officials have less training and experience in administering the vote than do state and local election administrators who oversee most of the primaries.
Reflecting such concerns, the Democratic nominating process includes fewer caucuses this year than it did in 2016. The Democratic National Committee has called for using government-run primaries rather than party-run caucuses.
“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” said Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections — you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, whose office will oversee the state’s primary in April, said, “The Iowa caucus is an excellent reminder of why important elections should be run by trained, skilled and experienced state and local election administrators, not political parties.” Connecticut’s results undergo a post-election audit, and all votes there are on paper.
“Connecticut’s voters should be confident that they can trust the results of our elections,” she said.
In retrospect, Iowa’s Democratic Party made one mistake after another. It introduced a new app, widely reported to have been made by a company called Shadow Inc., without sufficient testing, training of precinct captains or transparency. At the same time, it made reporting requirements more complex, so that the 1,600 Democratic volunteers who manage individual precincts were required to provide three times as many data points as in past caucuses on a brand new app many had never been trained to use. (There were also many more candidates this year, further multiplying the amount of information to be reported.) Party officials didn’t hire enough people to take reports by phone in case the system failed. And they managed expectations poorly, assuring the public that results would be published faster than ever before.
“These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told CBS on Monday morning, while shrugging off concerns about the possibility of technical problems. “We’re ready.”
This is not the first time that administrative problems have plagued the Iowa caucuses. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses shortly after 1:30 a.m. by eight votes over Rick Santorum. Two weeks later, a recount showed Santorum had actually won. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign declared victory after 2:30 a.m., even though official counting was not completed until that afternoon.
This year, the brand-new technology, lack of training and overconfidence by the state party amounted to a perfect storm. Government officials said they became aware of problems in the late afternoon, when precinct chairs began to report problems logging into the app. Many gave up on the app and began calling results in — as they’d done in past elections — but the reduced number of staff meant wait times so long that precinct leaders went home before they could report the results.
“Everyone was having the same problem,” said one Des Moines official who declined to be named. “Early on, it was obvious there were going to be problems.”
The receptionist at a WeWork office building in Washington, D.C., where Shadow Inc. listed its office in campaign finance filings, told a ProPublica reporter Tuesday that the company had recently moved out. Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira did not respond to a text message seeking comment Tuesday, and the voicemail box on his cellphone was full. An email to ACRONYM — an affiliated company — went unreturned.
One reason that caucus results are difficult to count is because they have multiple tallies. If a candidate doesn’t get 15% of the vote the first time, his or her supporters can switch to a rival. Delegates are apportioned by a mathematical formula. Now, the party is going through the painstaking process of verifying three datasets: the first expression of preference, the realignment and the overall delegate numbers. Verifying each number from each precinct takes several minutes, and the process must be repeated for more than 1,600 precincts. Because the Democratic Party did take the precaution of backing up counts on paper ballots, the final results should be verifiable. State party and federal officials have expressed confidence that the outcome will be accurate and trustworthy.
In a two-minute call just after 1 a.m. with the media, Price said the party was “validating every piece of data we have within that paper trail” and would “report results with full confidence.”
“We have said all along: We had backups in place for exactly this reason,” he said.
In a statement, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said he was “glad to hear [the Iowa Democratic Party has ] a paper trail for their votes, just as we use paper ballots in all official elections in the state of Iowa.”
“I support IDP while they take their time and conduct checks and balances to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the votes,” he said.
Records show the state’s Democratic Party paid $60,000 to Shadow Inc. in two installments in November and December. The app was introduced with the intent of speeding up reporting. While local and national media began asking about the app weeks ago, the party was largely silent about its mechanics and said little about testing or training. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, said that the Iowa Democratic Party had declined to allow DHS to conduct vulnerability testing on the app, though he said DHS saw no signs of malicious activity. The party has put out a statement that it has confirmed there were no intrusions and that the problems were the result of a “coding issue in the reporting system.”
The confusion in Iowa does raise concerns about the rest of 2020’s caucuses, as well as states — such as Hawaii and Alaska — where parties run primaries. The Nevada State Democratic Party, which paid Shadow Inc. $58,000 in August for “technology services,” will hold its caucuses on Feb. 22. The state party did not return a call for comment about the payment or whether it is using Shadow to report returns.
Experts said that using little-tested apps can raise the risk of security breaches because hackers could take advantage of an app’s poor computer coding. Some criticized the secrecy that shrouded the app itself.
“For critical software, I always look for documented, third-party security validation and transparency into the testing process the vendor used,” said Chris Wysopal, the chief technology officer at security firm Veracode and a prominent computer security expert. “It is a big, red flag if there is secrecy about the development process used to create and test an app.”
Election observers said one lesson of Iowa is that accuracy and clarity should be valued over speed. “It’s not about election integrity — the results will be verified with paper — it’s about satisfying our need to know immediately who won,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “When we balance out what’s more important, speed or accuracy, it’s not even a close call. We should be expecting accuracy and adjusting our expectations in regards to speed.”
This article was originally published in ProPublica. It has been republished under the Creative Commons license. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.