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Iowa caucus debacle follows shift to new tech marred by 'inconsistencies'

The Iowa Democratic Party says the delayed results weren't caused by a hack or an intrusion.

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People gathered for the Iowa caucuses.

Getty
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's full coverage of the 2020 elections.

The results of the Iowa caucuses were delayed nearly a full day because of a new technical system that uses a smartphone app to tabulate results. The Iowa Democratic Party said the delay was the result of "inconsistencies" in reporting with the new process, which uses a technical system in addition to handwritten results and photos.

As of 2 p.m. PT Tuesday, party officials announced preliminary results, with 62% of the tally. No winner has been officially announced.

The problem that interrupted the process Monday night was a "coding issue" with the system, which caused the app to only report out partial data, according to party chairman Troy Price. He said that the issue had been fixed, didn't compromise the accuracy of the reporting data and didn't result from any cybersecurity issues.

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"We have every indication that our systems were secure and there was not a cyber security intrusion. In preparation for the caucuses, our systems were tested by independent cybersecurity consultants," Price said in a statement Tuesday morning. "As precinct caucus results started coming in, the IDP ran them through an accuracy and quality check. It became clear that there were inconsistencies with the reports. The underlying cause of these inconsistencies was not immediately clear, and required investigation, which took time." 

At a press conference on Tuesday, Price said there would be "thorough, transparent and independent examination" of what exactly happened. "The reporting of the results and circumstances surrounding the 2020 Iowa Democratic Party caucuses were unacceptable," Price said. "As chair of the party, I apologize deeply for this." 

The delay affected the campaigns of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, all of whom had been campaigning in Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses are the first major contests of the 2020 election season, crucial for presidential candidates aiming to gain momentum as they seek the Democratic nomination. Unlike a primary election, a caucus doesn't involve voters heading to a ballot box. Instead, Iowa's caucuses are more complicated, involving people moving around a room to dedicate their support to a candidate. The process happens in person at various types of locations, including gymnasiums, church basements and libraries.

The introduction of the smartphone app for the Iowa caucuses has drawn concerns for weeks. Cybersecurity experts worried about vulnerabilities that could come with the app and feared that a delay in the results could cause people to doubt the legitimacy of the outcome.

More broadly, technology has been under heavy scrutiny when it comes to elections. The integrity and security of elections has been a major concern since the 2016 US presidential election, when Russian operatives sought to interfere with the process. They did so more with social engineering, spreading disinformation on platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

'The app failed, the back-up failed'

On Monday night, the delay caused widespread frustration among the campaigns. Dana Remus, general counsel for the Biden campaign, wrote in a letter to Price and to IDP Executive Director Kevin Geiken that the reporting system had "considerable flaws." 

"The app that was intended to relay Caucus results to the Party failed; the Party's back-up telephonic reporting system likewise has failed," Remus wrote. "Now, we understand that the Caucus Chairs are attempting to -- and, in many cases, failing to -- report results telephonically to the Party. These acute failures are occurring statewide."

The app was built by a company called Shadow, according to The Huffington Post. The report said Shadow is affiliated with and funded by Acronym, a Democratic digital nonprofit. Acronym CEO Tara McGowan didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. (Disclosure: McGowan is a former journalist for CBS News, which is owned by CNET parent ViacomCBS.) 

In a statement, Acronym distanced itself from Shadow, saying Acronym is "an investor in several for-profit companies across the progressive media and technology sectors. One of those independent, for-profit companies is Shadow, Inc, which also has other private investors."

On Tuesday, Shadow tweeted an apology. "We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night's Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers."

Originally published Feb. 3.
Updates Feb. 4: Added the latest information on the status of the Iowa caucus results, as well as a statement by Shadow and new statements by the Iowa Democratic Party.

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