Chaos in Iowa

Putin wins Round One in Iowa

Yes, there is no evidence that the cause of the tabulation fiasco in Iowa was because of Russian hacking. But the elephant in the room (besides Donald Trump) has to be Vladimir Putin, who put the fear of disruption in the hearts and minds of all “woke” Americans.

Putin did not need to do anything in Iowa except let his reputation precede him. The powers-that-be in the Iowa Democratic Party, organizers of the caucuses, wanted to try a streamlined method reporting results from each of the 1,681 caucus sites to the central tabulation center in the state capital of Des Moines. They chose to use a new app on smartphones that would immediately communicate results from each of the venues to headquarters.

If this was as recent as the Iowa caucuses four years ago, months before the public learned of Russian efforts to destabilize American democracy by probing and poking into our system of digital communication, there would not have been a problem. The app would have been thoroughly tested and coding errors or other glitches would have been resolved well before the actual caucuses began.

However, in the world of 2020 electronic reporting, we know that Vladimir Putin in Russia and cyber-stalkers in other countries are looking for ways to penetrate American vulnerabilities. When they actually hit a home run, they are able to steal or manipulate data and use if for their disreputable purposes. But they can also be very effective with a “doubles offense” in which the only impact that they have on the United States is to reinforce the fear that exists about the possibility of hacking.

The “doubles offense” is what happened in Iowa this past Monday night. The Democratic caucus organizers did not want to engage in beta testing of their new app in advance of the gatherings for fear that Russia, or some other country or groups of cyber-hackers would engage in nefarious conduct and try to disrupt the system. By not testing the system, they went to a default assumption that it would work fine.

Had it worked as anticipated, everything would have gone smoothly in Iowa. However, there was some sort of an error in the app, perhaps in coding, perhaps in compatibility with the outside world, that brought chaos to reporting the results from around the state to the site of central data tabulation.

The apparent work-arounds did not work. Phoning results in from the field to the central office did not work because there was not a high capacity phone bank at Des Moines headquarters to handle calls from over 1,500 remote sites. In some cases, representatives of nearby caucuses chose to jump in their cars and literally drive their results to the Des Moines headquarters. That did not work because the officials were not allowing outsiders to enter the building.

It’s easy to mock what happened in Iowa and the individuals who designed and implemented the strategy for the evening. But they were in a place in which many of us currently find ourselves; overwhelmed by the complexities of modern computing power. This time it was the Democrats of Iowa who made the seemingly avoidable mistakes; next time it will be someone else.

Two quick lessons that can be learned: (a) we cannot be vigilant enough, and (b) KISS [Keep It Simple, Stupid]; i.e. a straight-up popular vote elections makes counting and recording much simpler than the likes of caucuses or even the Electoral College. Let’s be smart out there!

This article is cross-posted in the POLITICAL INTROVERTS web site.