“I’ve worked professionally in software for 18 years and I can say with certainty that you should not use software for anything.”
— Steven Woods
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.
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.
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.
“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.