Don't Panic, But Do Reflect: Lessons From The Iowa Democrat Debacle

from the don't-throw-in-the-towel dept

As I write this post, party officials in Iowa are still trying to figure out the results of last night’s Democratic Caucus, while pundits and political opponents have wasted no time in tearing into the Democratic Party, technology, and the very idea of democracy itself. Although there is plenty of reason for criticism, much of what there has been overwrought. Professor Ed Felten’s twitter thread here provides plenty of useful perspective on this:

Nevertheless, there are many lessons to draw from last night’s Iowa caucus mess, but first and foremost is this one: don’t panic.

The biggest reason not to panic is that only the technology supporting the tabulation of the results broke. Whereas the systems for recording the results appear to be working just fine: there was paper, instruments for marking the paper, and (eventually) a way to transmit the recorded results to a place where they could all be added together. Sure, it will take a bit longer to add up all the results for the night, but that’s ok. Because there’s a paper trail we can still know what they are.

That said, there are still some cautionary lessons we as Americans can learn from the experience, not just for primaries and caucuses but for every election for every office, no matter how partisan, run in America.

First, of all the things elections need to be optimized for, speed is not one of them. And should not be one of them. The most important thing elections need is accuracy. While, sure, it would certainly be nice to have accurate results also quickly (and perhaps caucus officials thought the perceived convenience of the app would help towards that end), adding to the list of things it might be nice for election results to be tends to take away from what election results MUST be. And it is not worth the compromise. Which we can understand if we take a moment to think about the consequences if something does go wrong, as something almost always will. The reality is that if election results are delayed, we can still cope. As it is, in general elections results are often not certified until weeks or even months later. There is rarely a legitimate governance need requiring us to know electoral outcomes within hours of polls closing. We can wait a while, and it would probably behoove us to all expect to wait a while, because it’s our hunger for instant gratification that is creating pressure to rely on tabulation systems that are not optimized for what we can’t live without: accurate results we can all believe in. Ultimately nothing else matters, and we should be dubious about any voting solution that offers to deliver anything other than that.

Next is a lesson that applies to more than just elections, which is that just adding tech does not magically make everything better. Often, and as this situation illustrates, it can instead make things worse. Which is not to say that there is no room for technological innovation at all. The world would not be a better place if it were artificially locked into a 20th, or even 19th, century technological environment. Certainly there is a role for technology to play, and for technology innovation. However, not all new technology is necessarily an improvement over what came before. Sometimes what we already had was perfectly fine, or at least good enough for what we needed. And even if a new innovation might someday be better, it won’t necessarily be right away. In the case of the Iowa caucus, it appears they replaced the traditional tried-and-true telephonic support for reporting results with a brand new cell phone driven app, and it is not apparent why. True, sometimes older systems can have their own quirks and imperfections and things we might want to be better, and it’s not a bad thing to want to improve them. But where systems have at least been proven and reliable, any innovation needs to at least be able to deliver that same degree of trustworthiness before it can be considered a replacement, much less an improvement. No technology is magic; no innovation will suddenly solve all of our problems. Even the technology that is now regarded as proven and reliable was once new and untested itself. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work to get a technology to a point where we can depend on it for our most important functions, like elections. Expecting any new technology to immediately be able to be an adequate substitute for what came before, let alone an improvement, is therefore a mistake.

Next, paper matters. Again, the most important thing we need any electoral system to deliver is accuracy. Having a paper record helps deliver it. First, it affords redundancy. Even if our digital systems were perfect and bug-free, it would still be a good idea to have a back-up analog record. But especially while our digital technology is still evolving so rapidly and is still so decidedly NOT bug-free, it is critical to have a way to validate the results it gives us. Even when we think technology is working properly we still need to be able to audit it to make sure it is, and paper lets us do that. And then in those instances, like this one, when the technology has come up short, as it is still very much prone to do, paper means that we can still get what we need: accurate results of how people voted.

There is also one more critical lesson for now, and it’s one mentioned above: something will always go wrong, and so, by anticipating that something will go wrong, we can make it ok when it does. The more complex the system, the more likely something will go wrong. But on the other hand, a system complex enough to have problems is also complex enough to contain solutions.

Elections are complex systems, so there are plenty of opportunities for hiccups. Which is not to say that we want hiccups; naturally we should try to minimize them. The issue though is that no matter how much you try to eliminate them, hiccups will still happen, so what we need to do is be ready. And that means at least two things: one, that we design our systems to have the resiliency needed to overcome those hiccups. For instance, in the case of Iowa, the results could not be transmitted to a central accounting system via the app, and that was a problem. But because there was a paper record they will be able to overcome the problem.

And it means something else, which goes back to the first point made in this post: don’t panic. Don’t rush to throw away faith in our electoral systems when things go wrong, because it is almost a near certainty that something will go wrong. But just because something has gone wrong does not mean it’s the end of the world. Yet if, instead of allowing our systems to self-correct, we instead jump immediately to panic, we create a new problem. The reason we need accurate election results is because we need to be able to believe in them. It won’t matter how accurate they are though if we simply refuse to.

When things go wrong, as they are wont to, we need to take a deep breath and give them a chance to right themselves, which is what will happen in Iowa since they have paper records. Furthermore, as the saying goes, never attribute to malfeasance what can be more readily explained by incompetence. What happened in Iowa was the result of a poor deployment of a technological solution. It was not a conspiracy. It was not the Russians. It was plain old human error to have so heavily depended on this untested mobile app system. And the good news is that we can deal with these sorts of bad decisions. Sure, there are plenty of things we can and should do to minimize these sorts of problems and improve our electoral systems, like better fund and train local election authorities, end reliance on unproven new technologies for supporting elections, ensure we always have paper records, reinforce the franchise, and so on. But there’s no point in attacking our own democracy with distrust. Especially when it is so likely so misplaced.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Don't Panic, But Do Reflect: Lessons From The Iowa Democrat Debacle”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The Iowa Caucus is important because the media treat it like it’s important.

It was particularly important in 2004, when John Kerry’s upset win completely changed the race and he basically walked to the nomination from there. It was also important in 2008; Obama had an upset win too, though unlike Kerry he continued to face stiff competition (from Hillary Clinton) for the remainder of the campaign.

It’s been considerably less important to the Republican nomination process — just ask Iowa winners Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz.

Frankly the Iowa Caucus could use a reduction in emphasis. I think that, because of this clusterfuck, it will be much less important in 2020 than it was in 2004 or 2008. I think that’s a good thing (and I hope that it affects coverage of future elections too), though it’s unfortunate it took an embarrassment like this to achieve that.

Iowa should have an influence exactly proportional to its population. No more, and no less.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Ah, but that would require politicians to actually get a majority of people across the entire country to want to see them in office, and would mean that they couldn’t just focus on a handful of states and ignore the rest of them. That’s much more complex, and would require vastly more work by politicians, and as such would be anything but simple.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The need for speed

"We can wait a while, and it would probably behoove us to all expect to wait a while, because it’s our hunger for instant gratification that is creating pressure to rely on tabulation systems that are not optimized for what we can’t live without…"

I am not as sure that it is ‘our’ need for instant gratification as much as it is the ‘need’ for news organizations the be the pundit of the hour to ‘call’ election results. Every since the ""Dewey Defeats Truman" was an incorrect banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune…" debacle in 1948 and the growth of TV news reporting, the tendency for talking heads to want to be the prognosticators of what just happened, even if they don’t have all the facts yet seems to have not only grown, but ‘breaking newsitis’ makes them want to claim all the credit (and have in the past tried to prevent others from stepping in their marked territory).

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: The need for speed

Yeah, well cross checking graves registrations against voter registrations seemed like a lot of effort for little return. However, I must point out that Trump was only about one and a half years old in 1948 on election day, and wasn’t quite eligible for the Presidential election. Some would argue he still isn’t.

kog999 says:

Re: The need for speed

while I agree with what you said about the news outlets "needing" to get fast results and wanting to be first to report a winner, how is that the problem of the election committee, the state, or the people. what the news organizations wants should be of no concern and certainly shouldn’t influence the process.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: The need for speed

My comment was about the article pointing to our instant gratification need as the impetus for speedy results, while I see it as the media’s need. I also agree that what the news organizations want should be of no concern to those running caucus, but it is. I was going to try to relate it as a symbiotic relationship, but it isn’t. It’s more of a parasitic relationship, the the political operators are the parasites. Of course, those news organizations aren’t going in for a de-worming any time soon.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The need for speed

The article seems to be an apologist peace, and frankly it is wrong. There are some things where slow is accurate, accurate is fast, and so slow is fast. This isn’t one of them.

Notably the paper trail hasn’t prevented voter fraud in the past, as many an overflowing dumpster will attest. Yes there should be cross-validation. But no, we shouldn’t all calm down. Especially Iowans who are perhaps just coming to understand that all of their standing around has resulted in a decision that is being invalidated by negligence. Whether that negligence is felonious with premeditated intent remains to be seen.

Sufficed to say, old-hat fraudsters do not understand tech. The fact that the digital system failed, smacks of making time available for them to do what they do best. So in this case, no. Slow doesn’t equal accurate. What it equals, is uncertainty. And that uncertainty will be further exacerbated if and when the "new" numbers come out, with results that are highly variant from the existing cluster.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The need for speed

The only thing they should be upset about is their local Democratic Party pushing half-baked tech, relying primarily on it, and being involved with / creating a triumvirate of political hack organizations who attempt to disavow relationships with each other.

There is nothing wrong with getting a correct count from the original system.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: The need for speed

I am not as sure that it is ‘our’ need for instant gratification as much as it is the ‘need’ for news organizations the be the pundit of the hour to ‘call’ election results.

And why do you think they do that?

Because of us. (Not necessarily you and me, but consumers in general.)

It sells papers, attracts eyeballs, generates clicks. They wouldn’t be selling it if people weren’t buying it.

Richard Bennett (profile) says:

Organizational failure

This all comes down to the fact that many of the people who were supposed to use this app to report caucus night results didn’t bother to download the app and learn how to use it until election night. That’s an inexcusable organizational failure for which heads would roll in any business.

It’s really not hard to send three numbers from a phone to the a server somewhere. Trump does more complex things several times a day.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Organizational failure

"This all comes down to the fact that many of the people who were supposed to use this app to report caucus night results didn’t bother to download the app and learn how to use it until election night."

Which doesn’t really change the fact that e-voting is, in general, a bad idea even if it isn’t simply crapped out on the unsuspecting citizenry from on high.
That regular ballot voting in the US is bad enough to make people think e-voting is preferable just points to a dire need to reform the voting system from the ground up to make it more accessible to the citizenry.

"That’s an inexcusable organizational failure for which heads would roll in any business."

Not really, no. I can state confidently that in any business large enough similar shit-shows happen with depressing regularity with the primary guilty party still serving their full three years as CEO before moving on to even greener pastures with sterling credentials. The only time the guilty fuck-up can’t dodge the bullet of consequence is if the fallout if huge enough to make the board of trustees personally act. Enron, Exxon, AIG spring to mind. And in the last case the responsible bosses still walked away in ignomy but with full bonuses and severance packages…

The closest cure for the rose-tinted view you seem to have on "business" would be a closer look at the events leading up to the 2009 shadow banking crash and the resulting fallout.

"It’s really not hard to send three numbers from a phone to the a server somewhere."

The data still got accurately sent, but the package handler sorting the data broke, with predictable results. As a result they had to fall back on counting paper votes in the end.
That still isn’t the issue though. The benefits of a regular paper ballot election is that the vote count can be monitored by ordinary citizens and watchdog groups. To properly monitor a digital tally you’ll need to rely on a very few experts with root access to the systems which in the end means everyone ends up having to rely on what some system admin tells you.

"Trump does more complex things several times a day."

Eh…no. Expressing tourettes on twitter is, in fact, less hard than even holding normal conversation, let alone making a rational and informed choice then try to push that through a badly designed e-voter app.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Understanding failure

This all comes down to the fact that many of the people who were supposed to use this app to report caucus night results didn’t bother to download the app and learn how to use it until election night.

No, it really doesn’t.

First off, whenever you deploy new tech to your users, you have to assume that most of them will either A) not read the documentation/notice at all; and/or B) wait until the very last minute to familiarize themselves with it. This is IT 101.

Second, that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong. There was an actual problem with how the app was coded that had nothing to do with when the users downloaded it and familiarized themselves with it. That was partially due to the fact that the company likely didn’t have the chops to do that level of coding and/or wasn’t paid enough/given a long enough development timeline.

That’s an inexcusable organizational failure for which heads would roll in any business.

You’re right, it is inexcusable, but you’re wrong about heads rolling. In fact, that’s the standard operating procedure at most businesses, something that IT admins REGULARLY complain about. It’s the rare exception that when an event like that happens, the business holds their entire workforce responsible and fires them all.

It’s really not hard to send three numbers from a phone to the a server somewhere.

Thus proving you really don’t understand technology. If you don’t care about doing it right or security it is easier. If you care about doing it right and security, it’s a lot harder.

Trump does more complex things several times a day.

We’ve yet to see proof of this. If you have some, please provide it.

And since making this kind of an app is so "simple", even for Trump, I’m sure you can easily provide us with the code of how to properly do it, right?

Try again Richard.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The paper systems have bugs in them too, though they are auditable if the papers don’t get lost.

I saw a system once where the paper ballot was marked and then fed into a scanner. The serial numbers of the ballots were recorded and tracked and the paper ballot was retained for the audit. Seemed sensible to me at the time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I saw a system once where the paper ballot was marked and then fed into a scanner. The serial numbers of the ballots were recorded and tracked and the paper ballot was retained for the audit. Seemed sensible to me at the time.

The tracking of serial numbers has the potential to de-anonymize votes if done incorrectly. And random audits will need to happen whether or not the result looks plausible.

It can work, but is a lot of complexity to save us from… counting, which is not that hard and not necessarily as tedious as people think—if each person indicates one choice. If you’ve got some ranking system, or several independent votes on one ballot (as apparently happens in the USA), then it can be useful.

Anonymous Coward says:

The advantage of the present system ,is paper trails, people can go back and check the result,s ,pcs and voting machines can break down or be hacked,
for 100 ,s of years the paper voting system has work well.
paper votes can be recounted if theres a close result ,100 votes can decide a result in a close race.
i find it strange the app was not stress tested, even the old telephone reporting system did not work.the
paper system is not perfect ,but its hard to hack a box of paper votes.
ireland bought electronic voting machine,s for millions of dollars ,they were never used cos it was shown how easy to hack they were .
we still use the old paper vote system that was used in works ,
its fast enough to give a clear result within 24 hours of the voting day.

we still use bikes, the basic design is the same since 1900,
it has not been improved by any significant degree .
they are cheap and easy to use.
we need to realise that not everything can be improved by using apps,
or computers .

Anonymous Coward says:

pundits and political opponents have wasted no time in tearing into the Democratic Party, technology, and the very idea of democracy itself.

Who’s tearing into "the very idea of democracy itself"? Because that’s nowhere to be found in the linked article, and I haven’t seen any of it going on in the commentary going around. Mostly, people have been tearing into the Democratic Party for commissioning a shadowy app built by corrupt people with strong ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign, then trying to force it into the hands of a bunch of caucus workers, most of whom are retirees with a marginal degree of technical literacy.

Dunno about you, but to me at least, that’s totally worth tearing into.

ECA (profile) says:

I love non tech persons..

Person goes to a tech and asks for an app.
Then decides to add something..
then erase something..
Then asks if it can all be sent direct to a Local spot..
Can it be BT or Networked..
Can we have it do this and that and hold all the data remotely.

Tech Does what he can, makes it Simple, then tries to add and subtract the extra crap, and changes asked for, UPTO THE TIME LIMIT… and asks to test it.

NOPE its fine, we need it now.

Anyone ever build a spreadsheet and have it work Properly the first time?? Congratulations, thats a lie.

POOF D. PUFF says:

Oh, look, another shady, shadowy company linked to the Democratic double dipping dole.

What next, Talpion trained Israeli spies in Silicon Valley put a backdoor in it?

Still chuckling about the name ButtieGig…..

OA (profile) says:

Doing well in Iowa is mostly about momentum. Iowa is relatively small, overwhelmingly white therefore it is not a big or even medium delegate cache and it is not representative of the democratic electorate. Between the effective (if not actual) collusion of Iowa democrats, the DNC and the non-impartial media Buttigieg is gaining the likely undeserved benefit of momentum. These events suppressed the benefits to the candidate the MSM and the DNC clearly despise (Sanders). It will greatly distort the outcome of the upcoming New Hampshire primary (2-11-20) that Sanders was blowing out according to polls. Biden survives when he should not have. None of the top candidates drop out. From a certain point of view it’s win, win, win, win, win. Among other things this incident is a demonstration of power / a show of force and a willingness to abuse.

Two benefits of a caucus is that support and vote intent is highly visible and votes are counted openly, making silent cheating harder. Two negatives of a caucus is the tendency for chaos and the tendency for LOTS of little (and some big) arbitrary and capricious uses of power by officials. For the first time, In 2020, an app is used that decreases the positives of visibility and openness and (along with rule changes) increases the negative of chaos. Delaying the vote totals also decreases the positives. It’s been reported that the app was developed starting only two months ago, was not tested, was known to be non-working a week prior and is tied to Buttigieg and Clinton. The Techdirt community should be especially suspicious of some of the comments about the malfunctioning app, the data it collected and why they’re reporting incomplete totals for days. It is thoroughly unreasonable to describe this primary debacle as simple incompetence or some app coding error.

Coming into Iowa, it was obvious that Sanders was in the best position to win. How do you minimize the result?… An influential and traditionally accurate poll was scuttled right before voting began (caused by Buttigieg). As in 2016, there are highly unusual coin tosses. First, by choosing to toss coins for questionable reasons (abuse of power), like using the toss to break a tie that doesn’t exist ( Then, the tosses themselves are suspicious or outrageous (chaos, abuse of power) ( I’m beginning to wonder if the laws of probability function properly in caucuses. Even with a suspicious and incomplete 62% reporting, Sanders lead in vote count and tied in actual delegates. Meanwhile, media outlets loudly and repeatedly report a meaningless and incomplete Buttigieg win/lead using a "state delegate equivalent" instead of a vote count without making that clear. MSNBC stated that rural Iowa counties (aka Buttigieg counties) are weighted higher, so each vote is worth more (I don’t even know if this is true or not). The Democrat’s primary process is not democratic, the DNC promotes or pressures desired outcomes. The MSM does not report on elections, they interfere in them. Our "leaders" don’t truly believe in voting or elections, they rig elections while maintaining the illusion of fairness. All the while, each of these powerful entities is misdirecting backlash to a Russian Boogey Man. People want what they want and many are not restrained in how they get it.

Election corruption is not new, even in the US. These days, it is increasingly visible and thus more readily knowable. It doesn’t seem to matter to many who should notice this. This caucus is RIDDLED with suspicious behavior, at minimum. If a tree falls in the woods and noone wants to hear that, does it make a sound?

  • Some ignore corruption because the outcome is desirable or acceptable. Does it matter if something is not real or right if it is treated as real and might makes it right?
  • Some will throw out gibberish phrases like "conspiracy theory" to sabotage reasonable consensus or a reasonable assessment of events. It’s like flipping over a table when you are about to lose a board game. Once objective observation is undermined falsehoods can fill the void.
  • Thinking shortcuts, in cliché form, will be trotted out like: incompetence before malice or whatever the phrase is. Something about recognizing what’s in front of ones face appears to threaten the bubbles that so many are immediately certain they are not in.
  • I’ve notice that people judge an idea based on how they FEEL about those they see as already believing it. Using feelings in this way in inadvisable unless one understands how those feelings came to be. Was it by prejudice? Was it stoked by some self-serving politician or by the manipulative media? Also, is it fair to cling to negative attitudes about people whose objective reality one refuses to acknowledge?
  • Some people will claim to notice ills only when those ills can be weaponized against those who are NOT guilty of it. Like smearing an enemy as anti-semitic…

People want what they want and many are not restrained in how they get it, but what causes the rest of us to tolerate or support it and not call it what it is?

<—Paragraph redacted by me—>

Also, I wont panic. I have a towel.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Suicide by cannibalism, v2.0

Last time around, the Democratic Party blatantly stole the primary from Bernie Sanders, and outraged Sanders voters were the primary force that tipped the balance and put Trump in the White House.

Because it worked out soooooo incredibly well for them in 2016, they are attempting to do the same thing again this year.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Suicide by cannibalism, v2.0

Can’t blame the democratic party though. Sanders may be as close to being incorruptible as a politician can come. Worse, he’s fairly smart and likes to scrutinize.

When the popular vote threatens to go to that one guy who doesn’t understand or want to play the game of mutual backscratching all too much of the democrat leadership has no other option than to ensure that guy gets tossed out early. No matter the consequences.

And consequences there will be. The citizens rooting for Sanders are the type of people who have grown tired enough of cronyism and corruption the last thing they want is more business as usual.

If Sanders gets sunk, expect them to vote for Trump. Again.

It’s pretty telling how bad this is that even as a european without much of a dog in the race I’d shy from having to choose between Biden and Trump, even as an intellectual exercise.

Koby (profile) says:

No paper trail either

It appears that even though a paper trail was created, the paper trail is inaccurate. While I agree that a paper trail WOULD have been nice, it doesn’t appear to exist. It appears that an over-reliance on technology, and no satisfactory backup system has completely botched this caucus.

Anonymous Coward says:

My biggest issue about all of this is the lack of communication from the Iowa Democrats. News agencies asked for updates and info on what was happening and got nothing for hours. They asked to speak to the Communications Director and was denied. If they put out a statement, or the Communications Director went up on stage and answered reporters questions the blow-back wouldn’t be half as bad.

ECA (profile) says:

The idea.

Of 2 groups, trying to decide among themselves Who among them to Back 100% with 15% of this nation(with 2 groups thats 30%).
Is abit Stupid.. Their decision means nothing wehn they can only choose 1 to follow.(that is controlled by the Group)
2 groups of 15%(total 30%) Dump a bunch of money, adding in the Corps money, to get a job..
And the other 70% of us have to deal with this?? That 2 groups pick the person we are supposed to elect?? What do you expect from this??
1/3 of the Country controlling the other 2/3??
Cant we find someone ELSE??

Also there are generally over 1000 people running to be President, but they Dont have money enough to campaign, and be on every TV in the USA..thats another trick. and I think Many of those IDIOTS(lots of them are) are putup by the 2 groups to confuse the hell out of us. Thinking Anyone ELSE running for office has to be a nincompoop.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...