But is it Safe?

The Iowa Caucuses are one of the great curiosities of presidential politics.  Famous as much for their format as their results, these contests are notoriously difficult to report in realtime. Every cycle, media outlets and politicos race to share results as quickly and accurately as possible.  This year they had help from a party sponsored reporting application created by Interknowlogy in partnership with Microsoft.

Let’s be clear, this App is both useful and beautiful. For the first time in Caucus history the media and viewers could observe results in near realtime on an easily accessible platform.  Still, while there is no doubt that this technology is a big step forward we’ve found ourselves asking — “But is it safe?”

First, a little background.  The Iowa Caucuses consist of over 1,500 contests conducted in precincts throughout the state.  Unlike most elections (even in Iowa), these contests involve in-person participation and may require multiple votes to reach a decision.  The most important results, as you might expect, are the final votes.

The major parties have used a variety of systems to aggregate votes for the Caucuses. For example, until last year the Democrats were using an automated phone system that guided the reporting official through a series of prompts to secure relevant data (e.g., “Press 1 for ______(candidate), then enter the vote total…”).  That system remains in service today as a back up to the Inteknowlogy App and a relic of a bygone era.

So, how does this new technology change the Caucuses and where do we go from here?  Let’s take a look.

What it is: The Iowa Caucuses App is a digital tool used to report unofficial results from precincts on election night.  The application allows local representatives to use party specific instances of the app to instantly report results to the central office.  The official results, however, must be submitted in writing to each county party.  These paper results are used to elect delegates to the county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the state conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the national conventions.

What it is not: In a word, official.  In another, secure.  This App has been designed to meet a real need, but it is not a security critical component of the election administration infrastructure.  There are few, if any, security consequences to the party if this application fails and end to end encryption is not required.  In fact, there is no requirement that this App meet a publicly mandated security standard. After all, if the official paper results are submitted correctly it should all work out in the end — right?

What this analysis fails to recognize is the important, albeit unofficial, role the Iowa Caucuses play in structuring the national political debate beyond Iowa.  Unofficial election night results play a central role in shaping the public perception of candidates. They can have an existential impact on these campaigns. The existence of an informal reporting system in addition to the official results process has always presented a very real vulnerability for our democracy.  In this respect the new system is no different than the old system and but still short of some critical features.

In 2012, this issue was clearly demonstrated by the Republican party when the results from several precincts were temporarily lost.  Under pressure from the media the Republican state party reported results prematurely, declaring Mitt Romney the winner by 8 votes. When the votes from the missing precincts were found the final result was corrected to reflect Rick Santorum’s victory.

With that in mind, I still hope the 2020 presidential election sees widespread adoption of this type of technology with two key additions.  

  • First, data can and should be reported in the federally approved election results common data format overseen by the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST.) If a government or partner organization is going present election night results they should also share the raw data for public consumption. In short, if we have the data we should publish the data.
  • Second, through the implementation of this technology the official and unofficial reporting processes should be brought together to provide an accurate and timely accounting of the results.

I think we can all applaud the work of the Interknowlogy team and the success of their application in the Iowa Caucuses.  However, while this exercise marks a step towards modernizing our election reporting infrastructure, we still have work to do.

The stakes of presidential elections are too high for even the smallest margin of error.  We have to get it right and we will.

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