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The Iowa caucus debacle shows why tech and voting don’t mix

The Iowa caucus debacle shows why tech and voting don’t mix


In a digital world, elections are one place where there’s good reason to stay analog

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Local resident Wallace Mazon holds a sign outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters February 4, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. 
Local resident Wallace Mazon holds a sign outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters February 4, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. 
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Heading into 2020 election, our minds — my mind — have often been focused on the election of 2016. How will Russia attempt to interfere? What role will misinformation play in the outcome? Will tech platforms play a deciding role?

The problem with fighting the last war, of course, is that the next war always plays out differently. You plan for threats that may no longer exist, or have transformed into something you won’t recognize. Meanwhile, new disasters lurk outside your field of view. The threat that overwhelmed you last time might distract you from the thing that’s gonna get you today.

Which brings us to The App. Here’s Elizabeth Lopatto in The Verge:

Several precincts in Iowa said that workers are having trouble using a new app to report caucus results. People were unable to download or log into the app, Bloomberg News reported earlier today. That meant caucus workers had to call in their results, delaying their reporting as the phone lines jammed. Originally, the Iowa Democratic party said the delay was due to “quality checks.” Results are now expected to be released later on Tuesday.

A letter from the Biden campaign castigated the leaders of the Iowa Democratic party, saying that both the app and the backup system of calling in results over the phone failed. “These acute failures are occurring statewide,” the letter said. One county chair, Tom Courtney of Des Moines, told The Associated Press that the app was “a mess.”

There’s a lot to say about The App — who made it, how it failed, and why it matters — but the first thing to say is that the actual voting process, however flawed the Iowa caucuses may be, went off just fine. People voted; their votes were counted and written down on paper “preference cards,” and those cards were collected for safekeeping in the event of the need for a recount.

Messy as the counting was, in other words, the vote went off just fine, and some healthy portion of Monday night’s breathless coverage can be written off as the disappointment of a cable-news chattering class that found itself unexpectedly without anything to chatter about. (See L.M. Sacasas on the Iowa caucuses as a “pseudo-event” and how the lack of instant results last night eliminates the point of holding them: “The habit of immediacy atrophies the capacity to extend care toward the past or the future.”)

Still, there were some obvious lessons to be drawn from The App’s failure.

One, misinformation loves a vacuum. When Democratic officials said that results would be delayed while they were vetted, Trump associates pounced, asserting that the contest must have been rigged. It was part of a sustained effort on the right to delegitimize the contest’s winner, which also included a viral article from Judicial Watch falsely suggesting that Iowa had a voter fraud problem. It now seems clear that legitimacy will be a primary battleground of the 2020 election. Partisans of the losing candidate will be quick to declare widespread fraud on the slightest of evidence, and partisans of the winning candidate will be called to marshal incontrovertible evidence of their victory.

Two, the use of new technology in elections should be treated with skepticism and perhaps even hostility. Keeping elections as analog as possible is an article of faith for close observers of the technology world — here’s a Verge article on the subject from 2012, citing concerns from 2000 — but the message seems not to have reached Democrats. The party contracted with a for-profit company called Shadow to build an app to transmit caucus results to the Iowa Democratic Party, but it didn’t work. Many precinct captains struggled even to install the app, which required that they go through a process outside the usual app installation process. It seemed clear that the app had not been adequately tested before Monday.

As Kevin Roose put it in the New York Times:

Using a proprietary app to report vote totals is the kind of thing that sounds simple on a start-up’s whiteboard but utterly falls apart in a chaotic real-world environment, where connections drop, phones malfunction and poorly tested apps strain under a surge of traffic. Add an army of frenzied poll workers, impatient voters and twitchy news media, and you might as well have asked the caucus workers to whip up their own JavaScript.

Third, the Iowa debacle is already reshaping other primaries. Nevada, which also employs a caucus system, had planned to use The App to conduct its primary on Feb. 22nd. On Tuesday, Nevada Democrats said they had abandoned that plan. That caucus will now be under much more scrutiny than it had been before — and it remains unclear how good the party’s Plan B is.

In the meantime, prominent Democrats are calling for the end to the Iowa caucuses altogether. Here’s Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-IL, on Morning Joe:

“As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting,” he said. “People who work all day, pick up the kids at day care, do you think they’re headed to the caucus next? Of course not. We’ve got to have a means for people to express themselves that is reliable. Unfortunately, the caucus system is not.”

Neither, sadly, is the technology upon which Iowa Democrats relied. And if The App indeed does end the caucus for good, it will be a most familiar Silicon Valley story: an untested new technology emerging, seemingly from out of nowhere, to topple what came before.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

🔽 Trending down: Trump expanded his travel ban to more countries, but this time Silicon Valley isn’t speaking out. Unlike in 2017, when the travel ban first was first announced, executives from Amazon, Apple And Google have been silent.

🔽 Trending down: A bug in Google Takeout exported some people’s videos in Google Photos to get exported to strangers’ archives last November. This story pairs well with this weekend’s Super Bowl ad in which Google asks you to share all of your most intimate data with it.


A group of powerful companies including Disney, IBM and Marriott are trying to weaken Section 230. Each has their own reasons for wanting to scrap the law, but all see an opportunity with Democrats and Republicans voicing their concerns over tech power. David McCabe at The New York Times reports:

The companies’ motivations vary somewhat. Hollywood is concerned about copyright abuse, especially abroad, while Marriott would like to make it harder for Airbnb to fight local hotel laws. IBM wants consumer online services to be more responsible for the content on their sites.

But they all see an opening as both Democrats and Republicans increasingly raise their own concerns about the power of the tech industry and the law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has helped Facebook, Google and YouTube grow into giants by holding only the people who post the billions of pieces of content on their services responsible for libel or other legal issues.

Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division at the Department of Justice, recused himself from the Google investigation due to a conflict of interest. In 2007, prior to working in government, Delrahim had a contract to lobby for Google’s acquisition of the adtech company DoubleClick. (Cecilia Kang / The New York Times)

Some of tech’s wealthiest citizens, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, are pouring money into Democratic groups that will back the eventual presidential nominee. The donations suggest that even as candidates like Elizabeth Warren bash Big Tech in the primary, they may need industry money for the general election. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)

Bernie Sanders poured money into a last-minute ad campaign on Facebook prior to the caucuses in Iowa. He spent $795,000 on the site from January 26th to February 1st, more than any of his Democratic rivals.

Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga spoke out about Facebook’s planned cryptocurrency project Libra. He said he liked the idea of a global currency, but concerns over compliance and the business model led him to withdraw from the association of companies backing the project. (Robert Armstrong / Financial Times)

Harvard called off an online harassment training for journalists after a speaker was linked to the prominent spyware vendor NSO Group. The company has been linked to several hacks against journalists in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Bahrain. (Russell Brandom  / The Verge)

The UK government’s artificial intelligence advisory group has called for regulation on how social media companies target ads. In a new report, they said that “existing regulation is out of step with the public’s expectations.” (Ryan Browne / CNBC)

In China, despite the government’s vast surveillance network, authorities are asking neighbors to inform on one another as they try to contain the coronavirus outbreak. It’s a familiar authoritarian technique that shows even a country with sophisticated facial recognition system still relies on human surveillance. (Paul Mozur / The New York Times)

Jeff Bezos paid more than $16,000 in parking tickets while renovating his mansion in Washington, DC. The tickets mostly came from Bezos-employed contractors ignoring “no parking” signs, parking in spots reserved for residents, or blocking crosswalks and obstructing pedestrians’ paths. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)


Instagram, the photo-sharing app Facebook bought for $715 million in 2012, brought in about $20 billion in advertising revenue in 2019. That’s more than a quarter of the social-media company’s revenue last year, say Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier and Nico Grant:

Instagram has become increasingly central to Facebook’s future, with users and advertisers flocking to the app even as sales growth slows at the main social network. Still, Facebook doesn’t disclose revenue for Instagram separately in earnings reports, instead preferring to highlight the integration of its properties, branding them as a “family of apps.” The team in charge of direct messaging on Instagram, for example, now reports to the Facebook Messenger team, and the company is changing Instagram’s branding to “Instagram from Facebook.” Instagram has more than 1 billion users, a figure Facebook hasn’t updated since 2018.

Snap released its fourth-quarter earnings, reporting revenue of $561 million, slightly missing analysts’ expectations. On the plus side, user growth was a healthy 17 percent. But the news sent shares plunging as much as 14 percent anyway. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)

Jigsaw, an organization owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, unveiled a free tool to help journalists spot doctored photographs — even ones created with the help of artificial intelligence. (Davey Alba / The New York Times)

Facebook updated Messenger Kids with new options for parents to see and control how their children use the messaging app. Parents will now be able to see more details about who their children are messaging with, whether they’re video calling them, and a history of anyone they’ve blocked in the app. (Parents should also still not download or use Messenger Kids.) (Jon Porter / The Verge)

Byte, a new short-form video app built by Vine co-founder Dom Hofmann, has been downloaded more than 1.3 million times during its first week. It’s also had to confront a flood of spam from bots filling the comments sections with follow requests. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

TikTok is testing a user profile redesign that’s remarkably similar to Instagram. The new profile shifts avatars and follow count to the left, and places more emphasis on user bios. (Dami Lee / The Verge)

Teenagers are using group accounts to flood Instagram with hard-to-parse user data that can’t be tied to a single person. It’s a fascinating response to young people’s anxieties over surveillance. Teens! (Alfred Ng / CNET)

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