The US just failed its first 2020 presidential election test

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden watch television results at his rally in Des Moines, Iowa on Feb. 3, 2020.
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden watch television results at his rally in Des Moines, Iowa on Feb. 3, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
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We’ve all been there—in some new place or situation, thumbing our phones, frantically trying to get online to download some obscure app, log in, receive a confirmation code, verify an email address, enter a pin.

Maybe it was an app you needed to get into a show or to board a plane or access your bank. Or maybe it was an app underpinning the results of a presidential election contest in the most-powerful democracy on Earth.

The Iowa caucus is quaint and folksy no more. News of lively community debates and cute scenes of voters congregating in corners of rooms giving away to a declared winner, jumpstarting another storied American election and giving that winner an essential head start, has been replaced with news of a simple yet important technological breakdown.

The Iowa Democratic Party had introduced a new system this year for reporting results. It was supposed to be more efficient, as technology always claims to be. Instead of phoning in the results, polling managers could just send them through a fancy new app.

There’s now an app for that, they thought. Well, the app didn’t work. Those in charge of reporting results had trouble at every step of the process, from downloading to logging in to entering their pin. And so they picked up the phone and called in the results like they had always done before.

And then—again, we’ve all been there—they waited on hold for hours before finally being cut off.

Ultimately this probably isn’t a problem for anyone other than the news organizations who had been planning for a year or more on how best to cover the Iowa results. Frustrated, those news organizations unleashed their rage onto front pages, televisions, computer screens, social media, and, yes, apps.

The results will come in later than expected. But by all indications, when they do, they will be correct.

It’s not yet clear if the app failed due to some kind of outside interference or hacking, or if it was just a mundane run-of-the-mill, spinning wheel of death snafu. Either way the damage has been done. Conspiracy theories are “swirling.” Distrust in the election process is growing. And this is just the beginning. There is a long way to go in an election for which the country had years to prepare.

Since the election of president Donald Trump in 2016, and the subsequent release of a Senate Intelligence Committee report laying out Russian incursions into the American election process, the federal government and states have been under pressure to secure the elections. But progress was fitful and, experts said, incomplete. Funding to revamp election security came too little too late, they said.

Roger Lau, campaign manager for Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, summed up the seriousness of what just went down in Iowa: “Every second that passes undermines the process a little bit.”