Iowa Caucus inspires questions on technology in politics

Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry Using technology in elections has a range of impacts.

Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry
Using technology in elections has a range of impacts.
Colorado’s vote counting process for presidential primaries

On February 3, both Democrat and Republican voters in Iowa gathered to cast their votes and choose delegates. In a caucus, voters convene in public spaces, then vote for their own individual candidates before those votes are translated into delegates. The more individual votes for a candidate, the more delegates they get. All of these numbers must be recorded, and like most things in the 21st century, there’s an app for that. 

Chaos ensued. According to The Guardian, some precinct leaders couldn’t even access the app. The Iowa Democratic Party assured the public that it was merely a technology issue with the programming, rather than a hacking scandal. Even with 100 percent reporting, the Iowa Democratic Party has yet to declare a set winner of the Iowa Caucus. Less than two weeks later, the Chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party resigned.

Technology has increasingly pervaded American politics. In the Iowa Caucus, the app used to track individual votes and convert them to delegates failed. In 2016, the Hillary Clinton email scandal was the talk of the town. Chelsea Manning, the woman who released classified data to WikiLeaks, has been imprisoned for almost a decade. This year, as Colorado shifts its presidential election process from a caucus to a primary, both politicians and voters alike are wary of how technology is being used throughout the election cycle. 

In Colorado, a database system is used to track votes. Primary votes are submitted via ballot, making the tracking process different from a caucus, which requires in-person tallying. The caucus process also presents the problem of authority. There is no governmental authority; all processes and data-collecting are conducted by the respective state parties. Additionally, while caucus votes are tied to each individual—meaning voters’ names are attached to their candidate— primary results do not reveal individual voting records. Rather, the database simply records who has submitted a ballot. The data obtained by each respective party in a primary are not publicized, but they can be used to target voters and measure overall trends in state politics. 

The technology used in politics isn’t an elusive concept. The databases used in Colorado are relatively user friendly and accurate, and the security measures taken by political entities are about the same as the measures voters take to protect their iPhones. “When you hear ‘technology’ and ‘politics,’ you frequently think of the worst examples of when it’s gone awry… And that there is nothing you can do about that. That is inherently untrue. There are a lot of very easy security steps that anybody can take,” said Pete Williams, the technology director for the Colorado Democratic Party. Two-factor identification and complex passwords are some of the easiest forms of security that political entities use.

While technology can make election night easier for all participants, Williams takes a cautionary approach. “Technology is not always gonna solve all of your problems. It frequently can, but you need to make sure everything is working the way it’s supposed to. Don’t start using an app the night when you need it most, and if you’re gonna, you better make sure everybody knows what they’re doing,” said Williams. 

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