Iowa Caucus

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Democratic Party of Iowa – USA
Project type : Election vote tally system
Date : Feb 2020
Cost : A major embarrassment

Synopsis :

Iowa caucus signs 2020

Looking for a way to embarrass yourself on election night – There’s an app for that!

With the world watching, the first tentative steps towards America’s November 2020 Presidential election were taken in the school halls, community centres and public halls of Iowa. The Iowa ‘caucus’ held on Monday Feb 3rd 2020 represents the first formal step as the two major parties pick who will represent them in the November election. As incumbents of the White House the Republican Party’s vote is a straight forward process to re-indorse the incumbent, but for the Democratic Party they have a field of candidates to choose from and hence the process is more challenging.

Caucuses are an interesting twist on the traditional ballot based voting. Bringing communities physically together, representatives of the candidates lobby for support among the voters who then chose their candidate and congregate in a designated location within the room so that the number of supporters for each candidate can be counted.  Those candidates who get insufficient support are dropped and a second round of lobbying and counting is then conducted. At the end of the second round totals can be calculated and based on a proportional approach ‘delegates’ assigned. The number of delegates won is reflective of the number of supporters each candidate’s team managed to convince through the lobbying process.

Caucusing centres are dispersed across the state and for the 2020 vote approximately 1,700 centres were in use. Each has a chairperson who administers the process and is responsible for reporting the results back to Democratic Party headquarters for finally tally. In prior years that reporting process had relied on a paper and phone based manual system, but for 2020 it was decided that a new app would be developed to streamline the process.

Although the method of counting and reporting for 2020 was somewhat different from prior years, there is no indication that the ‘report and tally’ process had ever been an issue or that the changes being made were especially complex. Iowa caucuses have typically reported results within an hour of the event closing and there has been no reports of significant errors or correction having to be made after the results were published. The expectation was that the results for 2020 would be available on a similar timeframe from prior events.

With no apparent problem to solve, the decision was still made to migrated the process to an app and a third party developer was hired to do the job. The resulting ‘Iowa Reports’ app seems to have unfortunately tripped things up. In the run up to the event some chairs reported issues downloading the app to their phones and during the event chairs reported that they couldn’t get the system to work. Where the app did transmit data there were concerns over the accuracy. In frustration caucus chairs tried reverting to phoning the results in, only to find themselves hanging on the phone for hours with no response.

What should have been tallied in under an hour dragged on into the night. TV pundits awaited with baited breath, filling in the void the best they could to keep the viewers from switching off. Eventually it was clear that results would not be published on the night and a formal announcement was made that results would come the following day. Unfortunately even that has not happened, and at the time of writing (a day and half later) only 71% of the tally is complete.

Initial reporting indicates that the app was developed on a relative shoestring budget (reportedly $60K). Although relatively simple in concept, things are often more complex in practice. Just the meetings necessary to get the requirements clear can rapidly eat into a budget that small, let alone the issues related to cybersecurity and testing that needed to be central to such a high-profile and sensitive project.

Although it is still early days, reporting suggests that coding errors, a lack of testing, a poorly devised training program and the failure to appreciate the risk were contributing factors.


Contributing factors as reported in the press: 
Underestimation of complexity resulting in insufficient time and budget to complete the project successfully. Lack of adequate testing. Last minute launch of untested product combined with ineffective training. Inadequate backup facilities.

Related stories:

  1. Project Orca 2012 – In the interest of political balance, the Republican Party in the US has in the past had its own It issues. Mitt Romney’s 2012 election bid had a famous meltdown on the bigger stage – The day of the presidential election itself!

Reference links:

  1. Iowa caucus: Chaos at key vote as results delayed
  2. Iowa’s caucus app was a disaster waiting to happen