Technical Reporting Issue Delays Results From Iowa Caucuses

Feb 4, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 12:09 pm

The Iowa Democratic Party says an unusual delay in reporting caucus results on Monday night was due to "inconsistencies" they found in a few results sets, not "a hack or intrusion."

A new smartphone app was supposed to help elections officials transmit results from the caucus sites to the state party leaders, but there were various issues with the technology. The backup phone hotline swelled, and many of those trying to report results couldn't get through.

NPR reported there were multiple concerns about how the app would work, including whether it would be secure, ahead of the election.

Listen at the audio link above to hear what happened and how it played out on the ground. Follow NPR live coverage here.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are broadcasting live from a coffee shop in Des Moines - the Smokey Row Coffee Co.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: We are here with a live audience and a live band, The Well Pennies. Everyone is in good spirits this morning even though we don't have conclusive results. We were supposed to be talking about the results of the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the 2020 election. But there've been a bunch of problems, and we don't have them. And if no one is the winner yet, everyone can claim to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOE BIDEN: Well, it looks like it's going to be a long night, but I'm feeling good.

(CHEERING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: We know there's delays, but we know one thing. We are punching above our weight.

(CHEERING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: So listen, it is too close to call, so I'm just going to tell you what I do know.

UNIDENTIFIED WARREN SUPPORTER: You won.

(CHEERING)

BERNIE SANDERS: And when those results are announced, I have a good feeling we're going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa.

(CHEERING)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. But when will those results be announced? The party is saying sometime today. But today - there are a lot of hours left in today.

NPR's Miles Parks helped break the story of problems with the election. He joins us on the line from Washington, D.C. We'll get to his reporting. We also have NPR's Don Gonyea with us here at Smokey Row in Des Moines. Thank you both for being here.

MARTIN: Thanks, guys.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Thank you.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

GREENE: Miles, what went wrong last night?

PARKS: Well, the biggest problem is that results just never made it to the state party. The state had unveiled this new smartphone app that they said was going to actually increase - decrease the amount of time it took for results to come in, that we might get results early on in the evening. That did not happen.

There were a bunch of issues with the smartphone app that was supposed to transmit results from the more than 1,600 individual caucus sites to the state party. That went down. We heard about problems with people being able to log in, being able to download it. The backup plan was a hotline that these precinct leaders were supposed to call in to. And we heard about a lot of issues - people being held on hold for up to an hour or longer. I talked to a precinct leader in Des Moines County Tom Courtney, and here's how he described what happened.

TOM COURTNEY: The app didn't work. Things didn't work out right. I've been trying to call for several hours to - to report my results. And I can't - I can't get through with the phone. It's a phone number, and I can't get through. That number's constantly busy.

PARKS: So Courtney just leaves the empty cafeteria that he's in after he's been waiting there for hours, goes home and just says, I'm just going to try it again in the morning.

GREENE: You are not the kind of person to say I told you so, Miles. But we should say - I mean, you reported extensively when this new app was rolled out, suggesting that there could be a lot of problems.

PARKS: I did. And there were a lot of issues in my reporting focused on security concerns. We have no indication - the party says they are certain that this was not a hack or a cyberattack that caused these problems.

But the broader issue remains. When this story came out a few weeks ago and we found out about this app, we were given very little information from the state party about who developed the app, what kind of practice was being given to the precinct leaders, what organizations or companies were doing tests on the app to make sure that it was going to be able to handle the amount of traffic it was going to take and that it was going to be able to work well. We got no answers to those questions really, and we saw the issues last night.

MARTIN: So Don, we heard in that tape above how candidates are trying to spin this. You were with the Buttigieg campaign. What was the scene? What happened there?

GONYEA: So everybody was waiting, obviously. And the crowd is growing. And it's growing (laughter). And it's growing, and it's getting later than it's supposed to be.

MARTIN: Be (laughter).

GONYEA: So I wandered in. And generally speaking, people were pretty chill. So like, it's all right. We feel like we did well. We did - he did really great in my caucus. We're good. We're good. And occasionally - one 18-year-old woman who was there said to me - she said, I don't know. We left our caucus site, and we were ahead. And now we get here, and I hear we're in third place. And I'm kind of like, I wish they'd just call it right now. So the - a little anxiety was creeping in, but there was no, like, calls for a revolution because you don't go to a Buttigieg event if you're looking to call for a revolution...

MARTIN: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: ...Right? So...

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: But then, the candidate comes out late and gives a flat-out victory speech - just no hint at all of any problems really.

MARTIN: So both of us, David and I, were also at caucus sites last night. The one I was at was pretty interesting. It was at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. And there were over 300 people there, and the counting was going as planned. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: Ninety-eight...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #2: Ninety-nine...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: Ninety-nine...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #2: One hundred.

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: One hundred.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: And then they hit a little snag.

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: Everybody...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #2: Please...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: ...Please pay attention.

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #2: Line right here - OK? - I need you guys...

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #1: We need you to pay attention, please, so we don't have to do this a third time.

UNIDENTIFIED CAUCUS COUNTER #2: We are going to start the count over.

(GASPING)

MARTIN: So everybody freaks out. Nobody wants to do this count over. I mean, another glitch was that they ran out of paper ballots, which is a new thing this year. Right?

GONYEA: That's right. They're the presidential preference cards. They don't call them ballots because then you get in trouble with New Hampshire and their claim...

MARTIN: Right.

GONYEA: ...Of being - but yeah...

MARTIN: It's a paper trail.

GONYEA: But it is a paper trail. And it's something they can now go back to - and it is what they are going back to - to double-check the results that they first saw some problems with as they were coming in or not coming in over the app.

GREENE: Miles, everyone talks about technology being the future of voting. After this, do we still think technology is the future of voting?

PARKS: Yeah. You know, you would assume that 2016 would've been enough to burst that bubble, but it wasn't. There has still been this push from the Iowa Democratic Party for technology involved in this to try and update this caucus process. This is a state party that, just a few months ago, was considering some form of mobile phone voting - voting on their - all caucusing being done via smartphone.

And then just a month ago when I talked to officials within the state party, they said, well, we're not going to do it this time; the national party wouldn't approve it. But we're really hoping that by 2024, we'll have smartphone voting, which all cybersecurity experts - almost universally - say is a really vulnerable, bad way to do elections. It seems hard to believe that this instance tonight - or last night, I should say, will make it so that that smartphone voting or any sort of voting technology will just come to fruition in Iowa anytime soon.

MARTIN: So Don, speaking of the future, I mean, there are questions as to whether or not Iowa deserves to be the first contest in these elections. Is this going to exacerbate those calls?

GONYEA: It will. Those questions are always rooted in demographics and size and all that. But now they're going to be rooted in this technical issue. In 2012, Republicans also had problems cutting theirs, people may recall. So both parties have had it now.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea and election security reporter Miles Parks. Thanks to you both.

GONYEA: Thank you.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.