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Why the Iowa results are taking so long

The state party says a smartphone app “coding” problem is partly to blame.

Natalie Serrano (left) and Isaac Garcia await caucus returns with their son Leonel, 2, at Sen. Bernie Sanders’s caucus night campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Matt Rourke/AP

The Iowa Democratic Party hasn’t announced the results of even a single precinct from Monday night’s Iowa caucuses, leading longtime political observers to declare the event a debacle.

The state party said Tuesday morning it expects results later in the day. In explaining what went wrong, the party cited “coding” problems with a new app used to collect the results and hinted at the complexity of this year’s process.

“It became clear that there were inconsistencies with the reports,” the party said in a statement. “The underlying cause of the inconsistencies was not immediately clear, and required investigation, which took time.”

This year, for the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party had planned to report how many votes each candidate earned statewide and in each precinct, as well as the number of delegates awarded. But it went badly.

Instead of ending in a single victory speech, the night wrapped up with each candidate giving their supporters an upbeat address hinting at a win. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg even explicitly claimed victory.

Here’s what we know about the delay, what’s behind it, and when we might finally find out who won.

The party’s take

  • The results are delayed due to “inconsistencies” in the reports to the state party that showed up during a “quality check” on Monday night, the state party said in a statement.
  • Results will be released “as soon as possible” on Tuesday, but are still being tallied.
  • This year, precinct chairs were using a new app to report their results to state party headquarters — but the app “was reporting out only partial data” due to a “coding issue in the reporting system,” according to the party’s statement.
  • The party says the app problem has been fixed.
  • In several statements beginning Monday night, the Iowa Democratic Party emphasized that the app was not hacked and votes have not been tampered with. And there is a paper trail because of the “preference cards” that voters filled out this year.

The view from the ground

  • Bloomberg reported on Monday that precinct captains were “struggling to use the new phone application,” with four county chairs telling reporters “that they were unable to download or log in to the phone app.”
  • Some precincts abandoned the app and used paper instead, according to Politico reporter Elena Schneider.
  • The state party said in its statement that there were backup systems in place and that results were being entered manually, although it was taking longer than expected.
  • It’s not clear how well the backup systems worked. One precinct chair tweeted Monday night that he’d tried to call in to report results and was on hold for an hour. NBC quoted an anonymous source in the state who called the phone line “a disaster.” And Corasaniti reported that the Polk County executive director’s photographs of paper results were not accepted by the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters.

The candidates declare victory

Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters wait for results to come in at his caucus night watch party in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Buttigieg took an explicit victory lap on Monday night, despite the information vacuum.
  • Each candidate gave a quasi-victory speech, starting with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, rather than wait around all night.

This year was different

The Iowa caucuses this year are a complicated process involving three different vote counts. For the first time, the state Democratic Party is supposed to be publicly reporting two different raw vote totals for every candidate (one with all candidates in the mix and one after those who did not get at least 15 percent of the vote were eliminated) as well as the number of delegates each candidate actually wins in the final vote total.

Some were worrying about chaos at the caucuses even before voting began, and by Monday afternoon, reports were trickling out about problems with the mobile app that precinct chairs were supposed to be using to report their results.

Why the Iowa delay matters

Iowa is not a particularly delegate-rich state; its significance comes from its first-in-the-nation status, which gives it an ability to reshape expectations among the media, donors, and political partisans. Winning Iowa doesn’t put you on track, on its own, to amassing an unbeatable number of delegates. It just feeds a narrative, and when it comes to Iowa, perception really is reality.

Under those circumstances, the later the results — and the more the conversation focuses on the process — the less time the winner has to capitalize.

But more broadly, the delay also appeared to be undermining the legitimacy of the caucus process — including both high-profile critiques of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and conspiracy theories that the party was somehow rigging the election.

The Iowa caucuses have long been a target of criticism for being too unrepresentative of the country and too inaccessible. Now critics and skeptics have another charge to add to the pile: the caucuses were a mess.

As early as 8:48 pm Eastern time, the New York Times was already reporting that problems with the app were giving rise to conspiracy theories.

“One of the risks of introducing apps like this, and new technology more generally, into elections, is that problems occur, as they inevitably do,” Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science and law at Georgetown University, told the Times. “People might see this as evidence that the whole system is rigged.”

This view got worse as the night went on. A viral tweet suggested, without evidence, that the app was being used to somehow rig the process against Bernie Sanders. Many of Sanders’s supporters bear a grudge against the party from the 2016 primary, and in the absence of a clear explanation for what’s happening, it’s likely conspiracy theories like these will continue to spread.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s campaign manager Brad Pascale, seized on the delay to suggest that the Democratic Party is rigging things somehow:

The Trump campaign has good reason to want to see Democrats divided going into the general election, even if there’s no evidence, so far, of any malice rather than technical difficulties.

But in an emotional and heated election, against the backdrop of a process that many Sanders fans thought was unfair in 2016 and a president who constantly accuses his opponents of cheating, it’s important that the US electoral system seems functional. The Iowa delay seems to be, so far, a step in the wrong direction.

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