Few silver linings and no quick fix: Iowa sets worrisome example for election technology

The Iowa app's problems provided a high-profile example of a warning experts have been making for years: Technology can make the election process harder and less secure.

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By Jareen Imam and Jason Abbruzzese

It sounded reasonable enough: a smartphone app that would allow the people running Iowa caucus sites to quickly record and report results.

But the reality of the app’s rollout on Monday — a possible bug in the code, confusion among its users, missed deadlines to download it — provided a high-profile example of a warning experts have been making for years: Technology can make the election process harder and less secure.

“There’s no quick, easy tech fix ever in elections,” said Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “We should remember that and we should approach new technology cautiously. Technology can be helpful, but it comes with initial costs in making big transitions.”

The app, made by Shadow Inc., which builds technology for Democratic and progressive campaigns, had attracted scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Cybersecurity experts expressed concern that the app could be compromised through the smartphones of the people using it, potentially giving foreign hackers a new way to interfere with part of the U.S. election cycle.

The app’s shortcomings proved more basic than that. In the days leading up to the caucuses, precinct captains and organizers were frustrated by it. Others were hit by error messages or unable to download the app. And a “coding issue” delayed reporting results, turning what was a tiny piece of the massive U.S. election system into a nationally recognized example of how not to use technology.

But technology and security experts who spoke to NBC News pointed to some silver linings. The app was meant to be the quickest way to report caucus results, not the only way. The system used paper backups, meaning the app’s problems would not taint the results.

The error provides the most visible example yet of why election security advocates have argued strenuously that all U.S. elections need to include paper ballots. Although the number is decreasing, about 16 million Americans will vote in counties and states that use paperless voting machines in time for the 2020 presidential elections, compared to 27.5 million voters in the 2016 elections.

Marian K. Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nongovernmental, nonpartisan group advocating for transparent election processes and verifiable voting systems, said any election technology needs to have backups.

“It’s clear that mobile apps are not ready for prime time, but thankfully Iowa has paper records of their vote totals and will be able to release results from those records,” Schneider said in a statement.

Apps are poised to play a bigger part in the 2020 election. A handful of states have experimented with Voatz, an app that combines a variety of technologies in an attempt to create a secure, digital voting system for absentee voters. West Virginia is considering plans to require counties to provide some form of online balloting for voters with physical disabilities.

The use of technology in the American election process extends beyond mobile apps. Electronic pollbooks, which as of October 2019 are used by 41 states, including the District of Columbia, can reduce wait times for people to check-in to their polling locations. And as of January 2020, 38 states and D.C. offer online registration, making it easier for people to sign up to vote.

In addition to concerns about the security of these programs, the introduction of new technology in election systems also risks causing confusion among people who have not been adequately trained. Even if the Iowa app had worked perfectly, many caucus managers had already given up on it, and it did not seem to have been fully field-tested in advance.

“You don’t roll out new untested technology in a super-high-stakes election for the first time,” Norden said. “And it seems that’s what they did here.”

Read more from NBC News/MSNBC Vote Watch.

Technologists have also sounded the alarm about what they see as the creep of consumer technology into more sensitive areas, including transportation, health care and elections.

Ken Birman, a professor of computer science at Cornell University, said that the ubiquity of technology in modern society has caused people to think everything can be sold with an app.

“The fact is we’re very comfortable with a lot technology around us,” Birman said. “And it’s training us not to think of these very specific critical situations, where the expectations and the technology are different from the expectations we have for a dating app or for reserving a table at the local restaurant.”

Birman said federal standards for voting technology and mandatory paper trails would help limit the damage that could be done by faulty election technology — and by lofty public expectations.

“Technology used in these very sensitive situations has to be held to a higher standard,” he said. “And the public as a whole hasn’t really appreciated that.”