WASHINGTON (AP) — Heading into this week’s Iowa caucuses, U.S. election officials were on high alert for a repeat attempt to interfere in the presidential election process by Russia or other malicious foreign actors.
Turns out, the hazards were closer to home.
A buggy mobile app, unveiled by the Iowa Democratic Party just in time for the first-in-the-nation caucuses, caused massive problems and vastly delayed results — creating fresh anxiety about election security leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
That anxiety is worrisome. The U.S. electoral system depends on Americans’ confidence that votes are being counted fairly and accurately. That confidence will be undermined if election technology like voting machines, electronic voter lists or apps such as the one used in Iowa continue to fail. And there are plenty of people – or bots – poised to pounce on these problems on social media to advance conspiracy theories that further undermine faith in the system.
The app created to compile and report caucus results malfunctioned due to a “coding issue,” delaying the count. Officials for the Department of Homeland Security and the Democratic Party, which runs the caucus, say there is no evidence of malicious activity. Nevertheless, the meltdown is roiling Democrats at the start of their long nominating process, and the self-created chaos could be an opportunity to sow more discord.
“You have to remember that there are adversaries who want to take advantage of an incident like this even if they didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Suzanne Spaulding, former undersecretary at Homeland Security’s cyber and election security arm.
Efforts to thwart foreign interference played a part in the Iowa complications. The party didn’t roll the app out to its 1,678 caucus locations until a few hours before the meetings began Monday night. Party officials had said they would not be sending it out to precinct chairs for downloading until just before the caucuses to narrow the window for any interference.
Duncan Buell, a computer science professor and voting security expert at the University of South Carolina, said the decision to wait was a head-scratcher. The chances that there could be problems with the app — its users would have had limited opportunities to test it ahead of time — was something that election security experts had been discussing among themselves in the leadup event, he said.
“Elections in general are chaotic processes,” Buell said. “From the system point of view, if you have a chaotic process and you really want the right answer you keep the system absolutely as simple as possible. It’s a software app put together in two months for a cost of $60,000. Well, duh. Software is hard.”
U.S. officials have said that Russia interfered in the 2016 election not only to help Donald Trump win but also to undermine public confidence in democratic processes. Federal officials have addressed anxieties over fair elections, aware that a lack of faith in the system is potentially as corrosive as foreign interference.
Trump himself fueled doubts ahead of his eventual victory, complaining to supporters repeatedly on the trail that the elections were “rigged” against him.
A 2017 U.S. intelligence community assessment on Russian election interference, and last year’s report by special counsel Robert Mueller, described covert efforts by Russia to sow discord in America. Mueller’s team charged 13 Russians who it said had orchestrated a social media campaign aimed at dividing public opinion on hot-button social issues through platforms including Facebook and Twitter. Though social media companies say they are on high alert for a repeat operation, many Americans remain unsure about the legitimacy and accuracy of some online postings.
And these glitches only add to the concern even, though the diversity of the U.S. election system —states, counties and municipalities rely on various technologies to carry out elections— is also cited as a defense against interference.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said the caucus should not be the test of the election system — it was run by the party, not the state.
But Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman, said the chaos in Iowa “is illustrative of our overall failure to take sufficient steps to protect the integrity of our election systems.”
The concerns may not be unwarranted. States have been scrambling to increase their cyberdefenses since 2016. They received a $425 million boost from Congress, but it’s likely too late for the funds to replace old or vulnerable equipment. Communication between state and local officials and the federal government is improved, but there is still reluctance in sharing sensitive information, and vendors that control voting equipment are still secretive.
Iowa Democratic Party officials initially declined to name the vendor who built the app, Shadow Inc. But after the withering criticism on social media Tuesday, it came forward and issued a series of tweets that expressed “regret” over technical glitches.
One good sign: Iowa caucus officials had trained on various emergency scenarios, including app dysfunction, Spaulding said.
“They had backups, they had redundancies,” said Spaulding, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You really do need to be thinking about analog ways of mitigating the consequences of a digital disruption.”
On Tuesday, Nevada Democrats said they would not be using the same app or vendor for its Feb. 22 caucuses, vowing not to have the same problems.
Still, the confusion with Iowa’s voting is worrying some voters. Laurel Severson, a 56-year-old middle school secretary from Dover, New Hampshire, said she’s nervous about the strength of the voting systems.
“I’m very fearful that the integrity might not be there,” she said.
New Hampshire’s event on Feb. 11 is a primary, not a caucus. People will vote via paper ballots that about 85 percent of towns will count electronically.
The state’s top elections official, Bill Gardner, said New Hampshire has “kept it simple” and he doesn’t expect to encounter problems.
“You can’t hack a pencil,” he said.
Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H.; Kathleen Ronayne in Portsmouth, N.H.; Ryan Foley in Des Moines Iowa; Christina Cassidy in Atlanta; and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.