Moving the ballot box online is still an improbable challenge for general elections, but parties are free to make most of their own rules — and this year both the Democratic and Republican parties have partnered with Microsoft to preview what could be the future of election technology. Microsoft and its partner Interknowlogy have made separate apps for phones and tablets for each party to let their caucus precincts report voting results to headquarters and the press. The apps, Microsoft says, will help the parties receive and validate more accurate results than the previous system which involved telephone surveys.
We won't find out for a while whether the apps provide parties with more accurate data, but the need for better verification of results is real. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the preliminary winner of the Iowa caucus until people figured out two weeks later that Rick Santorum actually won by 34 votes. Errors like that are potentially very damaging to a campaign, especially when news media election analysis often hinges on folk logic about momentum and "bellweather" states. There's also the fact that the new apps from Microsoft only replace one link in the chain of weirdness of primary elections in the US.
Microsoft's app hasn't made the Iowa caucuses less weird
If you want to know how caucuses in Iowa work, you should watch this adorable video from Mic that explains it with Legos. The short version is this: Republicans vote by writing down the name of their candidate on a piece of paper, and Democrats have a funny (and public!) system where a bunch of people in a room form preference blobs and then try to kidnap people from other blobs to join their blob. Then someone counts the people in the blobs and the biggest one wins. So Microsoft's app definitely sounds better than typing digits into a keypad on a telephone, but both parties will still have to rely on their precinct captains to correctly report the results from their blobs and hand-written votes.
The caucus tallying apps may deliver more accurate results than ever, and also help the public feel more confident in the results, since the news media won't be the only intermediary. Microsoft has also made additional collection verification apps for party leaders that allows results to be monitored and automatically scrutinized as they come in; the company says the system will flag "anomalies and potential problem areas" for review. Validated results will then be shared with the press and the public through an interactive web app that lets people see results in individual counties and precincts.
Some are skeptical of Microsoft's involvement
It all sounds great — and it might be! — but not everyone is happy with Microsoft's involvement. Part of the problem with online voting or tallying, beyond actual security risk, is the consent and trust of stakeholders and the public in the process. So it wasn't a good sign when the Bernie Sanders campaign cast doubt on the apps last week by questioning Microsoft's motives. "You'd have to ask yourself why they'd want to give something like that away for free," Sanders Iowa campaign leader Pete D'Alessandro told MSNBC. D'Alessandro questioned the integrity of the system, pointing to donations from Microsoft employees to the Clinton campaign over the years.
Whether these kinds of partisan accusations have merit is, in a very important respect, beside the point. Trust in electronic voting systems has been a serious obstacle to new methods over the years, and accusations have percolated for more than a decade — just look back at suspicion of fraud in the 2000 Bush v. Gore election when Diebold's voting machines started to take hold. It will take more than one caucus to convince parties and the general public that electronic systems have enough integrity to be trusted in elections, but as long as we don't find out Rick Santorum secretly won Iowa again in a couple of weeks, Microsoft may be off to a good start.