The Secrecy Around The Iowa Caucus App, And What It Means For Election Security

Feb 5, 2020
Originally published on February 5, 2020 5:53 pm
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It's now been about two days since caucusing finished in Iowa in the first contest of the Democratic primary for president, and only 85% of the results have been released. We know the delay was caused by a failure with the app precinct leaders were using. But as NPR's Miles Parks reports, with elections, it's what we don't know that can create problems.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Even before the caucus night meltdown, secrecy was the strategy for Iowa Democrats when it came to the new app. A month ago, in an interview with NPR and Iowa Public Radio, state Democratic Chair Troy Price declined to answer questions about what sorts of tests were conducted on the app or to detail the backup plans. But he did promise some sort of transparency.

TROY PRICE: We'll be able to give a preview to the press what the app will look like in the days leading up to the caucuses.

PARKS: That unveiling never happened, and the app failed in a major way on Monday. The party is now sorting through the paper records of the more than 1,600 precincts to figure out the final results. The failure was the result of a coding error within the app, the party says, and not a cyberattack. But transparency again has been limited.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Price repeated the claim that numerous cybersecurity experts had investigated the app, but he declined to say which experts. And when pressed by CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Price declined to set a timetable for results or even respond to the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRICE: We're going to take the time we need to...

JEFF ZELENY: And when will that be? When will that 100% be, Troy? When will that be? When will that 100% be, Troy? Do you have an estimate for when that will be?

PARKS: The question of how much transparency is the right amount when it comes to elections isn't new. The public still doesn't know, for instance, which two counties in Florida were hacked as part of the Russian interference efforts of 2016. In Iowa, however, that secrecy was used to hide a clear lack of preparation.

RACHEL PAINE CAUFIELD: The communication about the use of the app itself was not particularly robust. And now the communication after the fact - I think the party right now is just trying to hunker down and count numbers.

PARKS: That's Rachel Paine Caufield. She's a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. I told her I was interested in talking to first-time caucusgoers about the delay in results, so she took me to one of her undergraduate classes. It was the first time she'd seen the students since Monday night.

PAINE CAUFIELD: Yeah. You want to start by just telling us a little bit about your experience? Who - how many of you caucused at the field house? How many of you caucused elsewhere?

PARKS: I'd been seeing conspiracy theories circulating about the caucuses on social media, and I was curious if the students had been hearing anything from their friends.

When there's a delay in results like this, we know that that creates a lot of, like, kind of doubts, and it's kind of a hotbed for people to make conspiracy theories about, like, what's going on.

I asked the students if they'd heard anything like that, and they had.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: So all my friends back home are super fascinated with everything that was going on. And right away, when they heard that the results weren't coming in, they were like, oh, Russian collusion, Chinese collusion.

PARKS: On a whole, the students said they and their friends didn't believe most of the baseless information spreading online.

LAUREN SKY LAWSON: Like, what's more believable - that this is some big conspiracy theory or that some local volunteers had trouble with an app on their phone that they'd never used before and that technology is not always trustworthy? You know, like, which one seems more realistic in actual practice?

PARKS: But that same student, Lauren Sky Lawson, talked about how she is naturally a little suspicious. And she said her suspicions are fueled by officials not being forthcoming to start with.

LAWSON: When you see something like this happen, you are curious if there is something more going on than what you're being told because at least for me, I feel like I'm so used to finding out things that were not told in a super transparent way originally. So I'm always wondering if there's something more going on.

PARKS: The bottom line is people can spin the caucus delays any number of ways. Professor Caufield said they're like a political Rorschach test. And experts say misinformation in these scenarios is inevitable, but it's harder to combat when good information has been so hard to come by.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.