– On February 3rd, Iowa went to the polls, officially kicking off the Democratic presidential primary. It was the first big chance for candidates to seize the momentum and it was kind of a disaster.- It all comes down to technology. It appears that this app just failed. A technical disaster.- And what seemed to be a coding problem with the app.
You probably heard about this app that was supposed to report results back from the caucuses. On the night of the vote, it broke, which meant the precincts were suddenly sending back totals through clogged phone lines or, in some cases, texting pictures of the caucus worksheet. Because of the incomplete results, it took days to nail down who had actually won.
Now there’s no indication that this was a cyber attack or a conspiracy or anything, but its still a really alarming sign, particularly as we head into the 2020 general election. Voting infrastructure is really vulnerable, underfunded, and increasingly, it’s breaking down when we need it the most. This is one of the biggest threats to democracy right now and it comes down to a technology problem. But to see why it’s happening, you gotta look at the big picture.
So the problem here was a single app made by a firm called Shadow to help the more than 1,600 precincts send back results. Unfortunately, the app was made quick and dirty, apparently built over two months for just $60,000.That might sound like a lot, but when you’re making iOS and Android apps plus a whole database to maintain the results, you go through it pretty fast. When Microsoft bankrolled a similar effort for the 2016 Iowa caucuses, members of the team said the bill was closer to a million dollars.
The Shadow team also made weird rookie mistakes like distributing the app through a testing platform that made it hard to even download. Even when precincts could download the app, a coding error meant they could only report partial results, which then meant the party had to restart the entire process from the beginning just to make sure the numbers were right. Days later, they’re still sorting through it all. Now apps fail all the time and given the shoestring budget, it’s not that surprising that this one did. But because of its election tech, the fallouts been really intense.
But what we’ve also seen is an enormous amount of social media with a whole bunch of crazy conspiracy theories, a whole lot of arguments that this is maybe why people shouldn’t vote. When the tech fails, it hurts the whole process. Everyone assumes that things went bad because someone wanted to hurt their candidate, and it’s not a crazy thing to think because in America specifically, voting has gone from a fundamental right to one more piece of the partisan game.
A lot of the people running US elections just want to turn out a few of the other sides supporters as possible, whether that means kicking people off voter rolls without telling them or shutting down polling places so people have to wait hours just to cast their vote.
Fundings a big part of it too, and this is a big reason why elections are so underfunded in the US. Your local polling place is usually run by the county with only a tiny bit of funding from the state and federal governments. So even when a county election board wants to make voting easy and secure, they often can’t afford to. That weakens the whole system, just like we saw in Iowa. Now it doesn’t have to be this way. Policies like automatic voter registration can stop people from playing political games with voter rolls.
More polling places mean shorter lines. And if you make Election Day a federal holiday, you won’t get a huge rush as soon as work lets out. You can even spread Election Day out over a whole weekend just so everyone can make it to the polls. But we don’t do any of that in the USand its because a lot of the people in power just don’t want everybody to vote. People worry a lot about cyber attacks on voting infrastructure, but really, we don’t need hackers to break our election systems.
We’re doing it ourselves. The whole idea of elections, the whole idea of democracy itself, is to let these opposing factions agree on a process and agree to be bound by the result, even if it doesn’t go their way. But the more we degrade that system, the less reason there is to trust it and the less its actually able to resolve those conflicts. That starts with the tech breaking, tech like the Iowa app, the registration roll, the voting machine itself. But it ends with a much deeper rupture in the way political power works in this country. And fixing that rupture is gonna be a lot harder than fixing an app.