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Iowa Meltdown Raises Red Flags For Elections Going Forward


The results of last night's Iowa caucuses are just starting to be released, coming up on 24 hours after we expected them. Pete Buttigieg of Indiana is leading the delegate count so far with Senator Bernie Sanders close behind. What we do know is the smartphone app purchased by the Iowa Democratic Party for precincts to report results failed miserably. A backup hotline system also failed.

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the incident raises multiple red flags about the rest of this year's primaries and elections.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Douglas Jones has a sick dog, so he left his caucus meeting last night before the results were supposed to be turned in via a new smartphone app.

DOUGLAS JONES: Well, I went home, walked my dog and went to bed. That means this morning, I'm just finding out what a mess things were.

FESSLER: He was not surprised. Jones is a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and one of many who have warned for weeks that maybe it's not such a good idea to introduce a new technology at such a critical time - when the eyes of the nation were on the state's Democratic caucuses.

JONES: Caucus chairs, in many cases, apparently, were attempting to download and install the app on their phones on caucus night. That's extraordinarily difficult to do that kind of thing under pressure. Downloading an app at the last minute is crazy.

FESSLER: But that's exactly what many caucus chairs tried to do. And Elesha Gayman, the Democratic Party chair in Scott County, said it was complicated by all the measures put in place to protect the system against outside attacks.

ELESHA GAYMAN: Unfortunately, in my opinion, I think the security levels went a little bit too far. We had a lot of our precinct captains and temporary chairs and permanent chairs that were trying to log into this system. And, quite frankly, there are so many layers of security, they would get messed up on one.

FESSLER: And then, in frustration, they tried to call a backup hotline, which was quickly overwhelmed.

RICK HASEN: I think there are a lot of lessons out of what happened in Iowa last night.

FESSLER: Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, has just written a book called "Election Meltdown" about all the things that might go wrong in 2020.

HASEN: No. 1, you should be very careful about changing rules and using new technology for the first time in a high-stakes election. And yet, we know a number of states are going to do this.

FESSLER: He notes that many, such as Pennsylvania, will be using all-new voting equipment this year. In fact, some of those new machines already malfunctioned last November, showing a local judicial candidate with a handful of votes when a recount showed that he'd actually won. And while Iowa's caucuses are unique, others have been eyeing similar smartphone apps and Internet voting. Last night's events gave them reason to pause. Today Nevada's Democratic Party announced that it will not be using an app like Iowa's in its February 22 caucuses, despite having paid tens of thousands of dollars to the developer, a company called Shadow.

Hasen says there were other extremely worrisome things that occurred last night, including the immediate suggestion by the Trump campaign, without providing evidence, that Democrats were rigging the caucus vote. Some Democrats also circulated conspiracy theories questioning the legitimacy of the results.

HASEN: And so we need to be on guard against that and really watch against disinformation and attempts to rile people up in an already very polarized environment.

FESSLER: Election officials say they are trying to prepare for such contingencies, but they admit there are always problems they don't anticipate. Top state officials were in Washington, D.C., last week to go over security preparations with the Department of Homeland Security. Today the acting head of DHS, Chad Wolf, said on Fox News that his agency had offered to test the Iowa smartphone app for security flaws before the caucus, but the Iowa party declined the offer. Wolf said there were no signs of any malicious cyberactivity, but, he added...


CHAD WOLF: Given the amount of scrutiny that we have on election security these days, this is a concerning event, and it really goes to the public confidence of our elections.

FESSLER: Confidence that certainly took a big hit last night.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.