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Iowa Caucus Meltdown Proved Transparency Is Essential, Election-Watchers Say

Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside of the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters.
Nati Harnik
Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside of the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters.

As the Democratic primary season rolls on, one big lesson already is sinking in from the party's caucus-night meltdown in Iowa: Secrecy isn't a strategy.

State Democratic chair Troy Price declined to answer questions a month ago about what sorts of tests were conducted on the smartphone app the party was planning to use on caucus night or detail backup plans should it fail.

But he did promise some sort of transparency.

"We'll be able to give a preview to the press of what the app will look like in the days leading up to the caucuses," Price said in mid-January, in his first interview about the app, with NPR and Iowa Public Radio.

That preview never happened. And the reporting system then failed in a major way.

The state party announced over the weekend that it was still adjusting results for 3 percent of the state's total precincts, and updating its projected national delegate allocations.

The updated results aren't drastically different from the originals, but the Associated Press, which many news agencies, including NPR, rely on to make race calls, says the results still "may not be fully accurate," and that it cannot declare a winner.

That's led to questions about the legitimacy of the results and more broadly, questions about whether caucuses still have a place in a Democratic party that says it wants to prioritize voting accessibility.

"It is safe to say, this is not the caucus that hundreds of thousands of Iowa Democrats deserve," Price said on Monday.

The chaos was the result of a backup plan poorly communicated and executed in addition to a coding error within the app, the party says — not a cyberattack.

But transparency, again, has been limited.

Price has said the party "worked with nationally renowned cybersecurity experts to do testing and security checks on this app" but has declined to say which experts, or which companies they worked with.

Election experts say the past week's opacity creates an environment ripe for misinformation.

Security through obscurity

The question of how much transparency is the right amount when it comes to elections isn't new, but it has become the subject of intense focus in recent years.

The public still doesn't know, for instance, which two counties had their election networks hacked by Russian attackers leading up to the 2016 elections. State officials and members of Congress have been briefed but that information remains withheld from the public.

In Iowa, however, the secrecy was used to hide a clear lack of preparation.

"The communication about the app was not particularly robust, and after the fact I think the party is just trying to hunker down and count numbers," said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University.

Caufield has been teaching in Iowa since 2001, and every four years she watches a new crop of 18 and 19 year-olds navigate the caucus process for the first time.

In a class on Wednesday, her students listed the conspiracy theories about the delay in results they'd seen flowing around online or in conversations with their friends.

"All my friends back home are super fascinated with what's going on and right away when they heard what's going on. They said 'Russian collusion, Chinese collusion,'" said Sam Veytsman.

Another student two seats over, Lauren Sky Lawson, talked about when she stopped to think about it, the massive conspiracies didn't seem as likely.

"Like, what's more believable — that this is some big conspiracy theory? Or that some local volunteers had trouble with an app on their phones that they'd never used before?" she said.

Still, Lawson said she is naturally a little suspicious of information she gets in situations like the Iowa caucus fiasco. And those suspicions are fueled by officials not being forthcoming.

"You are curious if there's something more going on than you're being told because, at least for me, I'm so used to finding things out that were not told to me in a super transparent way originally," Lawson said.

Caufield called the caucus mess a sort of "political Rorschach test," that people can interpret whichever way fits their particular worldview.

Misinformation in scenarios like Iowa's is inevitable. But David Levine, the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said it's even more difficult to combat when good information is so hard to come by.

"If there is an information vacuum, then it will be filled," said Levine. "It's really important for people to understand how the election infrastructure operates so that as they see information coming in, they have the ability to assess it and understand whether or not its information they can rely upon."

Now as the primary process moves across the U.S., from New Hampshire to Nevada and South Carolina, the question is whether those in charge of elections will decide to share more — not less — about the process.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
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