Caucus-pocalypse, day 3: An almost-finished count, phone trolls, a hackable app and a call to recanvass

A couple waits for counts to start at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

On Thursday, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Tom Perez used his Twitter account to publicly called for a recanvass of the Iowa Caucus results.

A recanvass would involve auditing the reported results using the results reporting sheets filled out at each caucus precinct.

Following Perez’s tweet, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) sent out a written statement via email. In the statement, IDP Chair Troy Price does not mention Perez’s call for a recanvass, but basically dismisses it. According to IDP rules, only candidates who participated in the caucus can demand a recount.

“Should any presidential campaign in compliance with the Iowa Delegate Selection Plan request a recanvass, the IDP is prepared,” Price said.

Most of Price’s statement was dedicated to repeating previous statements about the IDP working “in close coordination with precinct chairs, and we are working diligently to report,” the results of Monday night’s caucus, and being “fully committed” to carefully checking the accuracy of its reported results.

On Wednesday afternoon, however, the IDP announced that some of the results it had published were wrong.

Also on Wednesday, the New York Times published a story stating that its analysis of the results the IDP published on Wednesday found “more than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, that were missing data or that were not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.”

Perez’s tweet came approximately 12 hours after the IDP sent out an earlier email announcing it had now published results from “97 percent of the [caucus] precincts.” (Actually, the precise number was 96.8 percent of the precincts.)

“We have collected information from all but one precinct, and those records are in transit,” the IDP reassured the public.

That IDP email was sent shortly after midnight on Thursday, roughly 53 hours after the official start of the Iowa Caucus on Monday night.

Results from this year’s Democratic caucus were supposed to be available quickly, thanks to a smartphone app the IDP encouraged precinct chairs to use to report results. The app, of course, failed. Many precinct chairs weren’t able to use it, and when it was used, the app didn’t transmit all the necessary data. The IDP has blamed coding errors for the app’s failures.

The founders of Shadow, a Denver-based tech company that developed the caucus app, worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. According to the Times, the DNC encouraged IDP to use the politically well-connected tech firm to develop their reporting app.

Most of the concerns about the use of the app before Monday night were over the possibility of it being hacked. According to a story published by ProPublica on Wednesday, those concerns were well-founded.

The IowaReporterApp was so insecure that vote totals, passwords and other sensitive information could have been intercepted or even changed, according to officials at Massachusetts-based Veracode, a security firm that reviewed the software at ProPublica’s request. Because of a lack of safeguards, transmissions to and from the phone were left largely unprotected.

ProPublica stressed that so far there is no evidence any hacking of the app occurred, just that it hadn’t been properly tested in advance.

It wasn’t just the security features that weren’t pre-tested. The IDP didn’t even conduct a statewide test of the app’s basic functions prior to Monday night.

The IDP’s back-up for the app in case of problems was a toll-free phone number for precinct chairs to call with their results. That back-up also failed, as precinct chairs were left on hold for excessively long periods of time or got busy signals. Many chairs gave up on trying to use the phone number on Monday night.

Johnson County Democrats caucus at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in Iowa City. Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Several news organizations are reporting that part of the problem with the back-up phone number was the result of deliberate attempts to disrupt the Democratic caucus. According to NBC News, the back-up phone number “was posted on a fringe internet message board on Monday night along with encouragement to ‘clog the lines,’ an indication that jammed phone lines that left some caucus managers on hold for hours may have in part been due to prank calls.”

The “fringe internet message board” was on 4chan.

“On 4chan you’ll find anime, porn, and sports chatter,” Vice wrote in July. “You’ll also find an endless stream of racist threats, stomach-churning memes, and misogynistic vitriol — and it’s getting worse, according to a VICE analysis of more than 1 million comments on one of the site’s most popular message boards.”

“An Iowa Democratic Party official said the influx of calls to the reporting hotline included ‘supporters of President Trump who called to express their displeasure with the Democratic Party,’” NBC reported, noting it was impossible to say how many trollish phone calls were made to the back-up number.

During a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked about the reports that Trump supporters had called the IDP back-up number. The governor insisted those reports were false, but didn’t explain how she knew that.

With 96.9 percent of precinct results reported, Sen. Bernie Sanders still has more supporters in the final alignment of the caucus (44,753) than Pete Buttigieg (42,235), but Buttigieg is still winning more delegates to the state Democratic convention (550 state delegate equivalents) than Sanders (447).

Writing at Esquire, veteran political journalist Charles Pierce described this year’s Democratic caucus in Iowa as a “very chewy cluster of fck [sic].” Pierce published that assessment before Perez tweeted out his call for a recanvass.

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