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Iowa Caucuses a Showcase for Microsoft's Ambitions in Civic Tech

Mobile apps aim to speed the process of tallying results.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

As Iowans head to churches, schools, restaurants and firehouses today to cast the nation’s first votes in the 2016 presidential race, the closely watched caucuses will bring attention to another first — a pair of mobile apps Microsoft developed to report results.

Local Democratic and Republican party officials will use their smartphones and tablets to report vote tallies in nearly 1,700 precincts throughout the state. It’s a high-profile bid to improve the speed and accuracy of the process, following an embarrassing miscount in the 2012 Republican presidential nominating race.

Microsoft recognized the opportunity more than a year ago, when the technology giant approached both parties to offer its help.

“Obviously it’s important, it’s highly visible — that did not escape us,” said Dan’l Lewin, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for technology and civic engagement. “We also think it’s a great way for us to make it clear to those in this field of civic tech that we’re here. We’re serious about this.”

Civic tech is a burgeoning part of the tech sector. Local and state governments spent about $6.4 billion last year in efforts to make government more accessible, efficient and effective.

For Microsoft, the opportunities take many forms — from using tiny, Internet-connected sensors to help manage the use of water in drought-stricken California, to applying data science to try to improve traffic safety in major U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco. It pledged last year to work with 10 U.S. cities to use its Azure cloud platform to modernize transportation, building management and public safety.

The Iowa caucus project fits with Microsoft’s efforts this election cycle; the company is hoping to showcase its technology as tools for the modern political campaign, which increasingly relies on data and analytics to identify supporters, raise money and turn out the vote.

“There’s an opportunity for us to share the power of the kinds of technologies we can bring to bear,” said Stan Freck, Microsoft’s senior director of campaign technology services. “There’s a civic good component to that, to be sure. There’s also … there’s a market there. There’s money being spent on elections, on campaigns.”

Microsoft Corp.

But on the eve of the caucus, Democratic contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, who often rails against the greed of big banks and major multinational corporations, found a new villain among the corn fields of Iowa: Microsoft.

Sanders’s Iowa coordinator, Pete D’Alessandro, questioned the motives behind the caucus apps in an interview with MSNBC: “You’d have to ask yourself why they’d want to give something like that away for free.” The Sanders campaign has even gone so far as to build its own “reporting system” to check the results from the official app.

Representatives for both the Democratic and Republican parties in Iowa expressed confidence the apps would be useful.

“The Iowa GOP is committed to updating and making sure that the caucuses are run as openly and transparently as possible,” said Iowa Republican Party co-chairman Cody Hoefert. “Part of that is making sure we can record our results as quickly as possible.”

The 2012 Iowa caucuses were sullied after a close race between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Romney initially was declared the winner in the GOP contest — then, two weeks later, Santorum claimed the prize, once the paperwork was finalized.

Back then, both the Republican and Democratic parties in Iowa — which run the caucuses — relied on an automatized telephone system for reporting results. It was the kind of system that was prone to errors, with little checking to verify the results.

Microsoft’s app is built with safeguards aimed at ensuring accuracy, such as a summary of results that prompts the precinct captain to double-check the numbers on a smartphone screen before submitting the tally. There’s another layer of validation at the campaign headquarters, which is designed to flag irregularities — like 100,000 registered voters participating in a precinct where only 10,000 met in a caucus four years ago.

A backup system of paper ballots will be returned by mail within 48 hours, in the event that an audit needs to be performed.

The venerable caucus process itself remains unchanged by the march of technology.

For the Democrats, registered voters gather in a room and have the chance to make the case for their favorite candidates. Once everyone has spoken, people move to a portion of the room reserved for the candidate they support. That’s one corner for Sanders, another for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a third for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and a fourth for the undecideds.

Candidates who fail to draw a minimum threshold of 15 percent of the attendees are deemed inviable, and their supporters move to join another group — or remain uncommitted.

A person who has witnessed the process firsthand describes it as a lively one, in which people attempt to convince their neighbors to “stand with” them in support of a particular candidate. Once the movement stops, the precinct captains tally the number of people supporting each candidate and apply a simple math formula to allocate the proper number of delegates. The precinct captain opens the app, goes through a two-step verification process, and enters the number of eligible caucus attendees, the number of delegates for the precinct and the number of delegates per candidate. The app prompts the precinct captain to confirm the totals before submitting the results.

“Microsoft and their app partner, InterKnowlogy, are global leaders in the technology industry, and we completely trust the integrity of their staff and the app,” said Democratic Party spokesperson Samuel Lau. “The app will make caucus reporting more efficient, accurate and secure, and we are looking forward to seeing it in action on caucus night.”

The GOP’s process is more straightforward. Once the speeches in support of candidates have concluded, participants are given paper ballots where they can indicate their candidate of choice. The ballots are counted in public, and the raw vote tally will be reported via the mobile app (or, in instances of poor wireless or Wi-Fi coverage, via landline phones with the old automated system).

Both parties have been training their precinct captains to use the app to avoid a recurrence of caucus-night snafus.

“We’ve done 300 caucus trainings across Iowa — a minimum of two in every county, up to five in some,” said the Iowa GOP’s Hoefert. “We’ve been diligent. … We’re expecting caucus night to go smoothly.”

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