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What Went Wrong With The Iowa Caucus Results App?


What went wrong with an app in Iowa? The state Democratic Party expected to use that app to report results of the Iowa caucuses. And America woke yesterday to learn it hadn't worked. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us to discuss who made that app and how it all went so wrong. Good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was this app supposed to do as people met across Iowa in gymnasiums and other places and cast their votes?

BOND: Right. So all of the caucus leaders, the precinct leaders at these sites across the state, had the option - they could use this app to enter the number of votes that each candidate was getting in the different rounds. The app was helping to do the math about whether the candidates were viable to move on to the next round and then figure out how many delegates they should get and then report that information up to the state party. It wasn't being used to cast any ballots by voters.


BOND: And the Iowa Democratic Party, you know, they told our colleague, Miles Parks, just last month that the idea - this was going to make it easier and it was also going to mean the public would learn the results of the caucuses more quickly. But, of course, as we saw on Monday, that's not what happened.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I gather there were some precinct captains who just didn't trust this thing and tried to use a phone system that was overwhelmed, and then the people who did use it, it didn't quite work.

BOND: That's right. I mean, they had the option of calling in on the phone and it - which didn't seem to be adequately staffed. But also they just weren't - not everyone was able to download it. There were just a lot of problems accessing the app.

INSKEEP: A lot of problems accessing the app. So who was responsible for this app, for making it?

BOND: It was made by a company called Shadow Inc. that not many people probably have heard of before this week.

INSKEEP: If you want to have a little-known company, by the way, Shadow Inc. is a good name to go with.

BOND: Exactly, exactly. It was started by veterans of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. We do know that. And it was funded by a group called ACRONYM, which is this nonprofit started recently by Democrats. They're trying to take on President Trump online. David Plouffe, Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, is on the board. Now, they didn't respond to interview requests and ACRONYM has put out a statement distancing itself from Shadow. But the idea is Shadow is supposed to build these digital political tools - apps for volunteering or voter mobilization. It reportedly built software for the Buttigieg campaign. And the Iowa Democratic Party paid Shadow about $63,000 for its work. Nevada's Democratic Party also paid Shadow for an app similar, but now officials there say they're going to use a different app from a different company.

INSKEEP: OK. So they're going to go a different way. They don't want to have a repetition of what happened in Iowa. Is it entirely clear, like, what actually went wrong within the app itself?

BOND: Well, the party says there was a coding error, but they haven't given much detail on that. It looks like the app - the people who were able to use the app, only some of those results were getting reported to this party officials. And Shadow apologized on Tuesday for technical problems. It says the issue wasn't with collecting the data. It was transmitting that data to the party.

INSKEEP: This triggered so many concerns and even conspiracy theories about the results being tampered with or contaminated in some way. Should people be worried after an incident like this?

BOND: Well, in this case, you know, this app wasn't hacked as far as we can tell. It really does seem maybe it was a combination of technical errors, user errors and then, you know, the backup system just not working. But this is a reminder that technology introduces unpredictable risks. And cybersecurity experts have warned for a long time that apps don't belong in elections. There are too many risks like hacking. You know, what we know is this is a bad scenario in Iowa. This wasn't the worst case. There was a paper trail. No votes were affected. But, you know, this was a failure.

INSKEEP: Shannon, thanks so much for the update.

BOND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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