Updated: Feb 17, 2020

Democracy chases after Politics, here depicted as an unwilling passenger in a speeding car labeled Technology.
Technology abducts Politics by Andy Singer (2005)

When there were no results for the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus on the night of February 3, Trump gloated and Democrats started looking for someone or something to blame. It certainly seemed that someone needed to be held responsible for what Vox called a "meltdown," Fox called a "catastrophe" and the Daily Beast deemed an "utter disaster."

The Blame Game

Some blamed the system: Iowa's arcane caucus system for choosing party delegates has been widely critiqued for its undemocratic nature. Rather than abandoning an already confusing system, Iowa added 38 new satellite caucuses (for increased accessibility) and decided to report the results in three different ways (for increased transparency). When none of the promised results were available that night and still could not be confirmed the following day, many argued this would and should be the "final nail in the coffin" of Iowa's cherished (and, I confess, weirdly fascinating) but anachronistic and messed up process.

Some blamed Trump voters and even the Kremlin for infiltrating Iowa's Democratic caucuses. Others blamed the Iowa Democratic party,its state Chair, Troy Price (who has since resigned), Iowa's volunteer caucus workers, the national Democratic party, Nancy Pelosi (an always convenient whipping post), Hillary Clinton (because when isn't she to blame?), Pete Buttigieg (as he prematurely but not inaccurately declared himself the night's winner), and a former digital content producer for the 2012 Obama campaign,Tara McGowan.

At the center this blame game was a smartphone app produced by a start-up company with the unfortunately sinister-sounding name "Shadow."

Shadow promotes itself as a team of "campaign and technology veterans" with a "passion . . . to create a permanent advantage for progressive campaigns and causes through technology." This new (for-profit) tech company was launched by McGowan, the 34 year old CEO of Acronym, a non-profit committed to "building power + modern infrastructure for a new progressive movement." Acronym's "playbook" for building progressive power includes: using "online innovations" to register young voters of color, mounting a large-scale social media campaign to beat Trump, and equipping progressive campaigns with the "technological infrastructure" needed to win.

Because McGowan had been the digital director of a superPAC affiliated with Clinton 2016 and Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira had worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, conspiracy theories suggesting the Clintons were behind the confusion in Iowa circulated, feeding and fed by Bernie bros (and Trump supporters) still intent on re-litigating the last election. Other conspiracy theories were related to Buttigieg. Sanders' supporters promoted hashtags such as #MayorCheat after it was revealed that Buttigieg had paid 42K to Shadow; some claimed that Buttigieg had been involved in a nefarious plot to steal Iowa delegates or to confuse matters enough to claim a win. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that the Democrats had orchestrated a technical glitch to cover up a poor showing by Joe Biden. Donald Trump's sons both tweeted that the the failed Iowa caucuses demonstrated that "the fix was in" and the Democratic elections were being "rigged."

Against these circulating conspiracy theories, others argued that the problem was Democrats' incompetence. Inconsistencies in the reporting of caucus results were blamed on site volunteers who couldn't count or who didn't know how to use the app (most of whom, it was implied, were simply too old to understand new technology). Precinct workers, in turn, reported difficulties with the app itself; both its accessibility and reliability seemed at issue. Most agreed that whether a glitch in the app or user error, Shadow bore responsibility for its failure to adequately test the app on the ground and for not training workers on the new app prior to its use. (And the Iowa Democratic Party bore responsibility for agreeing to use a new app that was not yet out of beta-testing.)

The day after the caucuses, in a pseudo-apology, Shadow expressed "sincere regret" for the "delay in the reporting of the results . . . and the uncertainty it . . . caused" candidates, campaigns and participants, indicating a resolve to "apply the lessons learned in the future," assuring readers that the technological glitch had not affected the results (only their timely reporting) and that the underlying issues (a coding error) had already been corrected. Aware that this might affect their relationship with other states and campaigns to whom they had sold or hoped to sell their products, Shadow further tweeted that they took what had happened in Iowa very seriously, and remained "committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party’s goal of modernizing its election processes." The Nevada Democratic Party (wisely) dropped its plans to use a Shadow app at its caucuses, despite such reassurances.


It is worth pausing to reflect on this rhetoric of "modernization." What does it mean to "modernize" an election process and why is this necessary? Speaking to New Yorker reporter Andrew Marantz (2020), McGowan claimed that "many big Democratic organizations are beholden to an old model that values traditional media over new media, personal relationships over data, oligopoly over meritocracy,” claiming that if progressives “are going to find more voters where they are—online, on their phones—then we’ll have to be more risk-tolerant, and, if you’ll pardon the word, more disruptive." Here modernity is aligned with new technologies and digital processes (e.g. smartphones, data mining, targeted ads, virtual relationships) and the Democratic establishment is to be shunned (or at least shamed) for its allegiance to old-fashioned (ancient, pre-modern) forces and modes of democratic production (e.g. landlines, door-to-door canvassing). As strategic advice about how to reach younger voters and older digital converts, this is savvy enough. But other parts of McGowan's techno-utopian view are concerning.

First, it is unclear why disruption should be considered desirable in and of itself. "Disruption," as used by McGowan and others in the tech industry is an empty buzzword, intended to capture the notion that in a rapidly changing world, businesses (and by extension here, political parties) that do not constantly "innovate" will be left behind. But whether disruption is a positive thing depends what we are disrupting and why. To disrupt a personal relationship, for example, is a good thing if the relationship in question is exploitative or abusive. But if the relationship is mutually enriching and characterized by reciprocal care, no obvious good is served by disrupting it.

So what needed disrupting here and how was that disruption served by the Shadow app?

Many people have argued persuasively that Iowa's caucus system needs disrupting. While caucuses putatively bring neighbors together for public discussion of citizens' concerns, caucuses are profoundly undemocratic in some obvious ways: systems that operate by demanding bodies move around gymnasiums or other public space over a potential span of hours to show support for a candidate favors those who are young, able-bodied, and without family or work responsibilities impeding their participation. Moreover, a caucus's core mechanism of deal-making---that aims to garner support for one's favored candidate through rational persuasion, psychological manipulation, personal favors, implicit threats, or anything else at one's legal disposal--amplifies racism, sexism, classism and other pre-existing inequities among community members. But even if we agree that the caucus system should be disrupted, the disruption needed here did not require technological innovation. It simply required the political will in Iowa to abandon their tradition of caucusing in favor of another not-so-new tradition--namely, voting.

Another candidate for disruption suggested by McGowan's techno-utopian vision is a political system run by political elites (the oligarchy) with personal and economic connections to those who control the markets (the oligopoly). We can agree that democracy is incompatible with both oligarchy and oligopoly. But why should we assume that new technologies (even cutting edge technologies, which Shadow was not), will automatically, or even probably, challenge such anti-democratic forces? While personal relationships among politicos and legacy media do threaten democracy, so too do the co-dependent relationships between and among politicians and the new technology industries. The techno-utopian who claims that big data (collected through digital surveillance) and predictive analytics (prone to serious algorithmic biases) automatically rewards the best (most meritorious) candidates is either stupid or disingenuous. To be sure, technological shifts may empower reformers, but new technologies also empower "bigots, hucksters, and propagandists" (Marantz (2019)). Indeed, the phrase "Twitter President," as aptly used to describe Trump, is living proof of this.

Trump's hair floating atop a blue twitter bird perched atop a necktie featuring the stars and stripes.
The Twitter President

Second, how much risk-tolerance we should cultivate depends on a cost-benefit analysis. At a moment in which citizen confidence in democratic processes is shaky at best, the risks associated with introducing new, untested mobile apps into our democratic processes are considerable. In addition to the risks of exposing electoral processes to tampering, new software systems are apt to have bugs when first rolled out. As Washington Post reporter Joseph Marks notes, "it doesn't take a hack for technology to undermine confidence in an election." The coding errors in the Shadow app opened the door for doubt about the accuracy of caucus results, despite paper records of voting totals against which data could be verified.

Given these predictable costs of using a newly developed app that had not yet been tested statewide and on which caucus workers had not been trained, one might assume that the potential benefits of the app would be high enough to justify such a risk. Thus, it is astounding to discover that the technology in question--even if it had worked perfectly--offered few benefits at all. As others have noted, the Shadow app seemed unnecessary to reporting and sharing results, which could have been accomplished through a shared google spread sheet or other existing user-friendly technology. While such systems are not unhackable, they offer encryption, two-factor authentication, and other security protections at least equivalent (and probably superior) to the virtually untested Shadow app.

So why did Iowa purchase the Shadow app?

When asked this question in the weeks preceding the caucus, Iowa Democratic Chair Tom Price indicated that calculating and reporting caucus results was a cumbersome and slow process. Thus a primary reason for using the app was to "speed up the time it takes to get the results to the public."

The Fetishization of Speed and Efficiency

As The Atlantic technology reporter, Abigail Madrigal (2020) writes, the Iowa mess "shows the deeply interconnected nature of political operatives and the risks of chasing the newest new thing." What it also shows, I fear, is a fetishization of speed and efficiency--a fetishization that is often at odds with democratic process.

Our excessive and irrational preoccupation with knowing election results immediately is a function, in part, of the 24 hour news cycle on television. TV news reporters are eager to report results to viewers and fearful of the dead air time that my cause viewers to switch stations or turn off their television altogether. This impatience, combined with a tendency to sensationalize the mundane when there is no "breaking news," is the primary culprit underlying the hyperbolic headlines following the Iowa caucuses. Incredulous that there were no results a few hours after the caucuses had begun, CNN's Chris Cuomo declared the Iowa caucuses an "epic failure," a sentiment echoed by other reporters on other stations who reported "chaos," "catastrophe," and "disaster" in the electoral system.

Law professor and cyber policy scholar, Nathaniel Persily, called out the indignant news pundits for undermining the credibility of Iowa's results. The "near perfect" functioning of precinct tabulations and paper trails, Persily noted, had been completely overshadowed by sensationalism about the delays in public reporting. Such delays, of course, should be applauded rather than criticized IF our primary interest is in ensuring an accurate result.

Our desire to have immediate results stands in tension with democracy's need for fair processes and accurate reporting of results. And the desire is not, of course, the desire of news pundits alone. It is a collective desire of most Americans who were watching TV (and fighting the urge to sleep) as the evening of February 3rd wore on--a desire shared by those who obsessively checked their social media feeds and online news updates then and in subsequent hours and days.

The irony here is that our desire for instant gratification in the form of "breaking news" has been largely produced by the very technologies that betray us. New technologies (like the Shadow app) are frequently not "new" at all, but simply a "faster" or "more efficient" way of doing more-or-less the same thing we were previously doing. We want (indeed, convince ourselves that we need) the newest or latest app because it promises to bring us results more quickly than our old apps. And when it does not--when it takes forever to download, when we have to waste time with two-factor-authentication, when election results aren't updated every few seconds, and when our complaints are not responded to with urgency--we feel betrayed. Betrayals require heads to roll; someone must pay for the misery we feel in our moment of unexpected, unwanted and seemingly endless . . . w-a-i-t-i-n-g.

There is plenty of blame to go around when we begin to discuss the failures of democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere. But at least partial blame is to be shouldered by all of us (myself included) who are disposed to impatience.

Democracy is precarious. The vulnerability of democratic systems--including electoral systems--is felt acutely during this moment of global populist and neo-fascist movements. Perhaps we (in Iowa, in the U.S., and in other places where democracy seems a fading political aspiration) can be forgiven for wanting a quick fix to our political predicament and, thus, for our techno-utopian fantasies. But what if democracy moves slowly? What if we cannot care for democracy—nurture it, strengthen it, cherish it—by insisting on instantaneous results? What if our very desire for democracy to be more efficient is part of the problem?

There is no doubt that the U.S. campaign season is too bloody long. (In many other democracies, electoral campaigns are limited to a few weeks.) There is a reason that Americans are already suffering election fatigue. That said, democracy--whether in the U.S. or elsewhere--is an ongoing process full of the messiness of collective decision-making, shared responsibility, and uncertainty.

There's no app for that.


Image Descriptions:

1. Technology abducts Politics by Andy Singer (2005). Democracy chases after Politics, here depicted as an unwilling passenger in a speeding car labeled Technology.

2. The Twitter President from Twitter could run out of Trump's tweets by Just Romans (2018). Trump's orange hair floats above a blue twitter bird perched atop a necktie patterned with the stars and stripes.

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