The Iowa Democratic Party launched a new caucus night reporting app this cycle, hoping it would make the process easier, faster and less prone to human error. But the app ended up doing just the opposite. Combined with an overwhelmed backup reporting system, results out of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses were delayed for hours. The IDP released the first set of results at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, but did not specify when the full tally could be complete.
Some Democratic precinct chairs reported experiencing issues with the app even before caucusing started on Monday night; some had been encountering error messages or issues with downloading the app for days.
Amber Mohr, a precinct chair and a co-chair of the Shelby County Democrats, says she was never able to successfully download the app despite repeated attempts. She says she kept encountering error messages that warned her downloading the app could harm her device.
Based on her experiences, she told the rest of the chairs in her county, “don’t count on” the app, and plan on just calling in their results via the IDP’s telephone hotline.
“We kind of gave them the advice if you get the app to work, fine. If not, this is the number to call, put it in your phones right now. And we'll just go off that because that will still be able to report the information accurately,” Mohr said.
Other chairs experienced issues when trying to transmit results on caucus night. Some say they weren’t able to sign into the app.
The IDP has said that based on their investigation there was also a “coding issue” in the app itself, which resulted in results being transmitting accurately, but some results being reported incompletely.
“This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately,” IDP Chair Troy Price said in a written statement.
The party’s use of presidential preference cards for the first time this year will allow for officials to vet reported results and recreate caucus night outcomes if needed.
Mohr and precinct chairs across the state experienced lengthy wait times in calling in their results, with some waiting 40 minutes or more before being able to get an actual person on the phone.
John Deeth coordinates the caucuses in Johnson County and says he watched from the county party’s supply drop-off center as a group of caucus chairs dealt with extended wait times and then passed the phone from person to person when they finally reached a party staffer.
“They stayed on the line and once each precinct got reported, they handed the phone off to the next chair to report the next precinct. So we just kept the phone line open once we had one. And then I got my spot in line. Me and the chair reported our results, we handed it off to the next person,” Deeth said.
Nate Gruber is a precinct chair and a vice chair of the Black Hawk County Democrats. He says he only got access to the app the weekend before caucus night, and says the rollout felt like a “last minute addition to the process” without adequate “stress tests."
“They didn't want the app out in the wild anymore…any longer than they had to. But that decision I believe maybe prevented them from being able to work bugs out,” Gruber said.
The Iowa Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment on whether the party arranged a test run of the app with precinct chairs in advance of caucus night. Several chairs have reported they had the option to access a test version of the app, though some reported issues with the app not accepting party-assigned PINs needed to sign in.
In a written statement Tuesday, Price reiterated that the party’s systems “were tested by independent cybersecurity consultants” and that the underlying results data is “secure” and that there “was not a cyber security intrusion."
“As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately,” Price’s statement reads in part.
Gruber says the failure of the app and delays in reporting results casts a shadow on the institution of Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses, at a time when the state’s status was already facing questions on the grounds of voter demographics and accessibility.
“There is well…we’ll say there's some improvement that could be done if this is going to be done next time,” Gruber said. “If there is a next time.”
He says he hears the renewed criticisms of the caucuses but says many precincts ran relatively smoothly on Monday night, just not the reporting results.
“It’s a little frustrating to see something that is not within anyone's control locally, being used to kind of condemn all of us…condemn all of Iowa and all the caucus process when it really was one step that kind of got overtaken by circumstance,” Gruber said.
Still, cybersecurity experts cautioned last month that the app could be vulnerable to attacks by bad actors, as well as usability errors or connectivity issues, warning that any issue with the app could delay the release of the results and undermine trust in the system.
The prolonged delays in reporting are drawing criticism, including from Iowa’s Democratic congressional delegation, and some of the Democratic presidential candidates themselves.