Feb 9th, 2020, 06:38 PM

Caucus Chaos

By Chloe Gavalas
U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, highly popular among democratic voters, campaigns in Iowa. Image Credit: Flickr/Pete for America
U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, highly popular among democratic voters, campaigns in Iowa. Image Credit: Flickr/Pete for America
Here's how 2020's Iowa Caucus took a turn for the worst.

As Americans move into the new decade and begin to focus on what the future holds for their country, attention turns towards the 2020 presidential race. The high stakes voting process leading up to the election is ideally carried out without technical difficulties, but that's not what happened earlier this month.

On February 3, one of the most important political events of the season took place. The Iowa Caucus is meant to act as the first indicator of who the nation sees as their next potential president. For all of us who need a quick debrief on political terminology, a caucus is when local eligible voters of a political party gather to select their preferred electoral candidate. The Iowa Caucus is exceedingly important because it is the first contest of the primary season, setting the narrative of the rest of the term. This year, however, it was accompanied by a disastrous turn of events.

The 2020 Iowa Caucus was unique because it marked the first time that Iowa offered virtual caucuses for democratic candidates. Voters would be able to select their candidates via smartphone, their votes being totaled in three different categories: initial results, final results and state delegate equivalents. On the surface, this seemed like an innovative idea that would allow voters to efficiently select their preferred representatives, as long as the app made to do so was programmed successfully. The issue though is that technology has not always proven reliable.

Controversy surrounded the idea of a virtual voting system from the start, as the possibility of serious hacks, security breaches and inaccurate tallying cast doubt on the reliability of future results. The app was available for download prior to February 3, but concerns arose right off the bat as it was slow to download and did not allow users to login. Consideration to delay the app’s release due to issues with its first tests was mentioned, but this was outweighed by time limitations and the assured success of the system, designed by Shadow, a startup tech company.


When it came time to launch the virtual voting app Monday evening, chaos spread among the democratic voters. People were encountering difficulty in using and navigating the app, which caused widespread delays in reporting the final results. Though many speculate that the app’s complications were due to a security failure and lack of safeguards, it has been stated that the visual and internal issues were due to simple coding errors

But how did this happen? Amidst the Democratic Party’s eagerness to digitize the voting process, Shadow dismissed elementary fine-tunings in order to have the app ready for use. Its creation was organized haphazardly and it was relatively untested once produced. What's more, with no description of how to navigate the app prior to its official launch, residents stood unclear on how to effectively submit their votes.


It wasn’t until late on February 4 that official results were released to the public. Of the state's 1,711 precincts, 71 percent were able to use the paper trail following the app to generate data. For the Democratic Party, Pete Buttigieg took the lead with 26.2 percent of the votes, followed by a close 26.1 percent by Bernie Sanders. Unaffected by the app’s mishap, the Republican Party winner undeniably proved to be Donald Trump, with 97.1 percent of the votes. 

The entire debacle "underscores the stakes of debuting new technology in elections and the inherent risks of layering more tech into systems to solve problems rather than looking for their root cause," notes Wired's Lily Hay Newman. Indeed, the Iowa Caucus app created a plethora of avoidable issues, including that of the Democratic National Committee's alleged "extensive oversight" of its creation.

Fortunately, no results were compromised throughout all of this, but with the already established uncertainty of the caucus system, this mishap only added to the nation’s doubts. For now, focus shifts towards future caucuses. With luck, their voting processes will go more smoothly.