Iowhat the fuck!?

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How could we not swear about this debacle. Donkey Hotey via Flickr

We are in rats’ alley

The U.S. Democratic presidential nomination began in a state of confusion. After months of campaigning, debate and anticipation, the 2020 Iowa Caucuses took place across the state on Monday, Feb. 3. While Iowa is a fairly small (31st most populous) and not particularly demographically representative (over 90 per cent white) state, Iowans have an outsized influence on the Presidential election, because they are the first to vote on who both parties’ presidential candidates should be. Historically, candidates who perform well in Iowa and other early states like New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina have tended to get a boost due to their positive momentum and significant media coverage, allowing them to campaign on a message of popularity and electability. On the other hand, candidates who do poorly in these states can face financial and political pressure to drop out of the race.

So, on Monday, Americans waited up to hear the results of one of the most significant days in the nomination process. And waited. And waited. And as night dragged into morning, it became clear that something had gone seriously wrong.

Most of the problems the Iowa Democratic Party faced in reporting the results were due to a new smartphone app they had commissioned specifically for the caucuses. Fortunately, there are paper backups of all the data, but trying to rely on an unproven digital reporting tool caused more problems for the Iowa Democratic Party than it could possibly have solved. The app was built quickly – in less than two months – and had not been sufficiently tested before the caucuses. While there is currently no evidence that the app was hacked in any way – and when it comes to quickly written code, human error is practically a given – Iowa Democratic Party officials have reported a high error rate in the data transmitted through the app, and at one point even asked caucus chairs to email in their results rather than risking more mistakes.         Furthermore, some of the precinct chairs who were supposed to be recording the results through the app were unable to log in at all, while others who could log in got bounced back out before they could input any results. Beyond technical faults and a complicated installation process, many volunteers struggled simply because they were unfamiliar with how the app worked.

When the precinct chairs were unable to report their results by app, they defaulted to what they had always done in the past – calling the results in by phone. Unfortunately, the phone lines were understaffed and became quickly overwhelmed, leaving caucus chairs on hold for hours. Some of them even opted to go home and call again in the morning once they realized how badly snarled up the lines had gotten. One particularly unfortunate man had been on hold for over an hour while he was giving an interview to CNN about the chaos. He made his way to the front of the phone cue during the interview, but because he could not answer in time, they hung up on him and he had to start over.

Independent of technology failures, the Iowa Democratic Party decided that this would be a good year to collect more data during the caucuses than usual – hardly the biggest problem of the night, but it certainly didn’t help that the chairs were spending more time recording information and then had more information to transmit.

As it stands now that all the results are in, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg looks to have won the Iowa caucuses with 26.2 per cent of state delegate equivalents, neck-and-neck with Senator Bernie Sanders’ 26.1 per cent. Senator Elizabeth Warren outperformed her polling and came third with 18 per cent of state delegate equivalents, while former vice-President Joe Biden did worse than expected, landing in fourth place with only 15.8 per cent.

And how much will all this matter? At this point, it’s anybody’s guess. In an unusual news cycle where the Iowa Democratic Party released the results in fits and starts and coverage focused more on the chaos than the candidates, it remains to be seen whether candidates’ performance in Iowa will have the same impact on the rest of the race as it would have if the caucuses had gone smoothly.

The Nevada Democratic Party, which had been planning to use an app for their Nov. 22 caucuses, has now “eliminated the option of using an app at any step in the caucus process,” according to party communications director Molly Forgey. And all this negative attention on the Iowa caucuses has raised important conversations about the other flaws in the process – how a state that is so non-representative is allowed to have such an outsized impact, for one, as well as how caucuses are done in a public forum rather than by secret ballot, making it much easier for voters to be coerced into supporting a particular candidate.

Hopefully, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) will use this debacle as motivation to fix the broken aspects of their nomination process going forward, and – just as importantly – stop messing around with the parts that aren’t broken.

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