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App Created by Clinton Alums Botched the Iowa Caucuses

A smartphone app was supposed to help Iowa’s 1,700 voting precincts provide smoother and quicker results for the first primary contest in the nation. Instead, in what The Los Angeles Times called “an unprecedented delay,” the Iowa Democratic Party is no closer to declaring a winner, and multiple reports suggest the much-hyped technology is to blame.

Unlike primaries in which voters cast a secret ballot, during caucuses participants “announce” their choices by physically gathering in a candidate-designated corner of a room, often in a gym or school cafeteria.

The app that was supposed to make this all easier was created by Shadow, a company affiliated with and funded by Acronym, a digital strategy nonprofit linked to multiple alumni of the Clinton and Obama campaigns. Per HuffPost:

Gerard Niemira, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, is the head of Shadow. He previously served as chief technology officer and chief operating officer of Acronym, according to his LinkedIn page. In 2019, David Plouffe, one of the chief architects of President Barack Obama’s wins, joined the board of advisers for Acronym.

The New York Times reports that “[the app] was quickly put together in just the past two months, said the people [who were briefed on the app by the state party], some of whom asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.”

Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said in a statement Tuesday that the lack of results was due to a coding issue with the app, but defended the accuracy of the data.

“We determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data,” Price explained, adding, “we have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed.”

It might be fixed, but as of Tuesday afternoon, the party had not released the results of the Iowa caucus.

David Jefferson, a board member of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election integrity organization, told The New York Times Tuesday that the Democratic National Committee encouraged the Iowa party to use the app, after rejecting another proposal, in which caucus participants would phone in their votes.

Before the caucuses, party officials would not initially disclose the app’s creators, claiming that doing so would expose it to hacking and other security vulnerabilities. “We as the party have taken this very seriously, and we know how important it is for us to make sure that our process is secure and that we protect the integrity of the process,” Price told NPR in January.

In the same interview, “Price declined to answer directly whether any third party has investigated the app for vulnerabilities, as many cybersecurity experts recommend,” NPR correspondents Kate Payne and Miles Parks write.

Cybersecurity and election experts were concerned about this lack of oversight and transparency. “The cellphone ecosystem is pretty poisonous these days,” Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, told The Des Moines Register in January. He added, “The net result is if you’re running an app on a cellphone that has other apps installed, you really don’t know what permissions those other apps have and if they are in a position to be nefarious.”

Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, echoed these concerns, telling the Register, “Mobile devices are so vulnerable because of all the access points on a phone.”

Since the Iowa debacle, Acronym has attempted to distance itself from Shadow. In a statement, Acronym spokesman Kyle Tharp writes, “We, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party.”

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