Iowa: Not a farce, but an acutely embarrassing tech fail

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 4, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign event at La Poste in Iowa. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Much of the world expected to have woken on Tuesday morning (Feb. 4) to a result from the Iowa caucuses. In fact, in this 2020 cycle, much of the world expected three separate results from Iowa because the Democratic Party changed the rules to count the following:

  • the first choice or “alignment” in caucus parlance
  • first + second choices or “realignment”
  • the delegate count

As it turns out, Iowa hasn’t delivered much more than a slew of terrible headlines that suggest the Democratic Party can’t run even so low-tech a popularity contest as the Iowa caucuses.

Indeed, the caucuses are famously low-tech. They are basically roughly 1,700 in-person meetings in gymnasiums, church basements, schools and other venues across the small Midwestern state. People stand in groups that support their preferred candidate to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. It is an open show of political allegiance and is very different from the secret ballot, which offends no one.

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump’s campaign is gloating. These are the people who want to run national healthcare, the campaign crowed, but they can’t even organise a poll of registered Democrats in a sparsely populated state like Iowa.

So, what did happen with this presidential cycle’s Iowa caucuses?

Just days ago, I was hearing about how everyone expected the results to be announced quicker than ever before. A Democratic Party official told me that the new app would make the announcement of results speedy. The caucuses, starting at 7 pm Central Time (0100 GMT) would probably wrap up sooner than usual, the official said, because the rules had changed to disallow endless realignment. And precinct captains were expected to simply log their numbers into the app. The tabulation would be simple and straightforward, he added.

The Iowa caucuses results should be in by 10 pm Central Time (0400 GMT), he said.

Evidently not. The app appears to have had issues of usability, causing chaos and conveying an unedifying picture of incompetence.

It’s a good illustration of the perils of adding layers of technology and complexity to something that was essentially meant to be a simple show of hands. That was the incongruous charm of the Iowa caucuses. Then the app killed it.