Iowa caucus results: What is the ‘Shadow’ app causing chaos in the Democratic presidential race?

Mysterious platform has undermined and overshadowed the beginning of the 2020 race

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 04 February 2020 15:00
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US Election: What is the Iowa caucus?

A new app has helped cause chaos in the first chance voters had to determine who could be the next president of the US.

The app was intended to help gather information from across Iowa on who the roughly 1,700 caucus sites had chosen to be their presidential nominee.

But it has ended up contributing to chaos that means that there is no clarity over who won the contest, hours after it has finished.

At the time of publication, officials were still scrambling to find and verify the results. And they were scrambling, too, to explain how one of the most closely-watched moments in the lead-up to the election could have gone so dramatically wrong.

What was the app supposed to do?

The plan was that caucus organisers would be able to use the app to send in their results, allowing the state party to easily collate them from those submissions. It is the first time that such a system has been used in the Iowa caucus.

The decision to use the app came together at the last minute, according to the New York Times, which reported that the Iowa Democrats had been preparing to use a different system that would involve people calling in their results over the phone. That plan was pulled with just two weeks to go, the paper reported.

What is so wrong with the app?

Very quickly, users started reporting glitches and errors, and organisers were able to input the information as intended. Many complained that they were being shown error messages and that the app would not load properly, forcing them to call in rather than use the app as planned.

Jonathan Green, who chaired a precinct in Lone Tree, said that when he tried to put the results into the reporting app, he kept getting a confusing error message: “Unknown protocol. The address specifies a protocol (e.g., “wxyz:??”.) the browser does not recognise, so the browser cannot properly connect to the site.”

The backup plan of having people call in their results also ran into trouble because the phones they had been asked to use in case of problems were not being answered, according to Des Moines County Democratic Chair Tom Courtney.

Issues were further exacerbated by the fact that the app was only made available at a later stage, in an attempt to stop outside interference. That meant it had not been fully tested, and that organisers had little experience of it before the caucuses.

Officials have stressed that the delays and problems are not the result of a hack or intrusion, and that the results will remain safe despite the problems.

“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” the party said in a statement. “This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

Who made the app?

The creation of the app still remains mired in some mystery: very little is known about the process of its creation, or where it came from. Though it is reported to have been made by a company called “Shadow”, the exact details of that startup are still unclear.

In fact, many of the organisations – such as nonprofit Acronym, which was reported to be an investor – have actually distanced themselves from the creation of the app in the wake of the mess.

What happens now?

All of the information is also kept in paper backups, and officials can now scour through those to find less high-tech but more reliable results for who has won. Local Democratic officials have claimed that means that the result will still arrive as normal, and will be reliable when it does, with the problems only meaning that they will take longer to actually report.

But the fallout could have broader implications beyond Iowa – into the rest of the primaries and caucuses, and even into further elections. As well as further scrutiny of the app, it could lead to yet more questions about why Iowa gets to be the first state in the country to declare, and whether that privilege should go to somewhere else in the wake of such high-profile mistakes.

Additional reporting by agencies

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