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Iowa app mess offers lessons to Democrats

The Iowa caucus was a disaster because the Democratic Party made the same mistake many banks make. Will they learn from it?

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

Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucus disaster already feels like ancient history, with Tuesday’s teary Queen-for-a-Day State of the Union and Wednesday’s shameful Senate impeachment acquittal in the meantime.

But before the smoldering wreckage disappears in our rearview mirror, it’s worth a second look. Self-criticism is a liberal superpower. We can consider ourselves, assess candidly, recognize what is wrong and, in theory, fix it.

So let’s take a look. Shadow Inc., an obscure tech company founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, was supposed to be the secret weapon to bring the Democrats up to speed against well-oiled Republican technology efforts. Instead, it thoroughly botched what should have been a dramatic Democratic milepost to the 2020 presidential election. What happened?

I spoke with Shlomo Engelson Argamon, interim chair of the computer science department at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He began by cautioning that neither he nor anybody knows exactly what went wrong yet and won’t for a couple weeks.

That said, there are obvious take-aways that can considered right now.

“In software development, a Silicon Valley attitude is: ‘Move fast and break things,’” Argamon said. “Build things quickly, throw them out there, see what happens. Get feedback from users. If they break, fix them and improve them. Learn by deploying.”

Shlomo Engelson Argamon, interim chair of the Department of Computer Science at Illinois Tech.
Provided photo

That works well enough when you’re rolling out a ringtone app.

“In computer games, in social media, the costs are low,” Argamon said. “If it fails, somebody doesn’t get to play a game.”

The Iowa Democratic caucus was different.

“Here, this is a mission critical application,” he said. “There is one day when it has to work. What you need is a much more traditional, stodgy, engineering approach.”

They didn’t get it. The caucus app was rushed. Failure was almost pre-ordained.

“From what I read, it was put together in two months,” Argamon said. “That’s simply not enough time to do this properly. If you asked any veteran software professional, ‘We’re going to put together an app in two months, what do you expect to happen?’ You would get, ‘Something bad is going to happen.’ Probably along the lines of what we saw.”

The system was difficult to download — three-quarters of the 1,765 precinct chairs couldn’t do it. When it was downloaded, it generated incorrect tallies. Votes had to be counted by hand, results were late and riddled with errors.

“Nobody should have been downloading the app the day of the caucus,” said Argamon. “They should have been doing that a week ahead of time. They should have had a fair number of precinct captains using the software, testing it to see if the interface actually made sense.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price leaves after talking to reporters about the technical issues that delayed reporting the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price leaves after talking to reporters about the technical issues that delayed reporting the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The first results were posted Tuesday afternoon, about 21 hours after Iowans gathered to for the caucuses on Monday night.
Joshua Lott | AFP/Getty Images

So why did the Dems blow it so badly? Partly because they’re human; underestimating technology is common. We are so surrounded by technology, and it tends to work so well, we forget just how complicated it is.

“Software products are among the most complex artifacts people have created in history,” said Argamon. “Any software program is more complex than the Willis Tower. If you walk across a bridge, you have a sense of the scale of bridge engineering, the construction that goes into it, the tests to make it stable and secure.

“But use a piece of software. It’s shiny. You push buttons, things happen. You don’t have a sense of the scale behind the scenes to make it work. The way things can go wrong if not anticipated.

“That’s one reason why organizations go for cheaper, faster solutions, They think, “It’s not a big deal. We’ll do things on the cheap.’ Big corporations fall into this all the time. We’ve gotten to a point where software and technology are good enough that we are lulled into a false sense of security. They’re not that good.

“We hear about security breaches, failures of major bank software. They’re not putting in the proper investment. That’s endemic. People don’t perceive the problem. That’s one of the lessons of Iowa.”

Will the Democrats learn in time? The lesson of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat is clear: Take nothing for granted. Sweat the details. Win not just by being better or being smarter, but by doing your homework, anticipating problems, working harder. Seems like that still has not sunk in.

Meanwhile, the canyon floor is rushing up. The November election is less than nine months away.

Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden hold up their first votes as they are counted at the Knapp Center at Drake University during the Iowa caucuses.
Precinct 68 Iowa Caucus voters seated in the Joe Biden section hold up their first votes as they are counted at the Knapp Center on the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday.
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press