At the height of the space race, or so the story goes, American astronauts struggled to take notes, the standard ink pen being of no use in a zero-gravity environment. Faced with the problem, NASA is said to have spent millions of dollars developing a writing utensil capable of functioning in orbit. Soviet cosmonauts, more cognizant of thrift, simply used pencils.
Though it appears semiregularly on the internet and in popular culture, the anecdote is entirely apocryphal. But it likely persists, at least in part, because the phenomenon it describes is so undeniably real. Large bureaucracies, as anyone who’s worked in one well knows, can sometimes be hardwired to make clunky decisions about where to invest time and resources — said decisions often reflecting the convoluted internal politics of the organization in question more than any overriding allegiance to efficiency. Contra the standard neoliberal line, which tries to pin the problem on states and public institutions while holding up the market as the solution, it’s a dynamic that can exist in plenty of private contexts as well.
And the secret lubricant is usually money. Or, more specifically, profit.
The Shadow Debacle
Just over ten months ago, the state of Iowa hosted the very first contest in the Democratic presidential primary season. As anyone who tried to watch the caucuses unfold probably remembers, what ensued was a disaster of epic proportions: the integrity of the process compromised by mysteriously delayed results, and a general atmosphere of chaos that featured reports of software malfunctions and jammed telephone lines. In the midst of it all, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg would erroneously declare victory even though no official results had actually been released.
While quickly eclipsed by subsequent primaries, the calamity of the Iowa caucuses nonetheless gave rise to plenty of speculation as to the cause of the chaos — much of it centered on the ominously named “Shadow” app used by the Democratic Party to gather results. The whole mess having arguably cost the Bernie Sanders campaign valuable earned media, and the app quickly being tied to a whole nexus of establishment party operatives, plenty of questions emerged about the possibility of foul play.
Though it will obviously have no effect on the outcome of the long-concluded primaries, an internal audit distributed to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) State Central Committee last weekend at long last gives some insight into what actually occurred in February, and the combination of events that transpired to produce the disaster. While it may not answer every question, the report certainly offers a plausible account of what happened and why, with the Shadow app predictably playing a leading role.
So, was incompetence or malice at the root of the Iowa caucuses debacle? Based on the information contained within the audit, the disaster of February 3, 2020 looks like a fairly textbook case of internal Democratic Party morass, with a dollop of garden-variety ineptitude mixed in. Which is to say: when politics becomes the hyper-professionalized and insular business that it now mostly is, a lot of bad decisions tend to be made about where to invest time and resources — and it very much looks like Iowa should be viewed in that light.
If nothing else, the report is an incredible peek behind the curtains of a totally avoidable disaster. Having made the fateful decision to develop a mobile smartphone app which precinct chairs would use to “automatically calculate the awarded delegates and submit their caucus results to the IDP,” party officials found themselves without an obvious vendor (Microsoft, which had developed a similar app for the 2016 caucuses, had declined). Shadow, it turns out, soon entered the mix, courtesy of connections between the IDP and its equivalent in Nevada:
As the IDP searched for the right vendor for the task, the Nevada State Democratic Party (“NSDP”), with whom the IDP had a positive and cooperative relationship, recommended a young political tech company called Shadow Inc. (“Shadow”). The NSDP had already engaged Shadow to develop a reporting app for the 2020 Nevada caucuses, so the IDP believed that Shadow would be a good fit. On June 20, 2019, the IDP contacted Shadow and submitted a request for proposal (“RFP”) setting out the scope of the development project.
Trouble began soon after, as Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials raised concerns over digital security, and development of the app got a late start. Amid further delays related to Shadow’s inability to receive necessary information from IDP personnel (the state party reportedly had only two in-house technology personnel, and they “were busy with multiple projects related to the upcoming caucuses”), the app wasn’t rolled out until January 18, 2020 — just two weeks before the caucuses were scheduled to take place.
What happened next was basically a comedy of errors. Having finally received information about the app, those who would soon have to use it “were met with a convoluted installation and login process set out in a 34-page ‘user manual’.” Even tech-savvy users reportedly found the installation process cumbersome, and, the IDP having for some reason decided to keep the identity of the developer a secret, the domain name (“shadowinc.io”) looked to some “like a phishing scam.” There were ultimately so many issues with the app that, with just a few days to go before the caucuses, “some temporary chairs began to indicate that they had ‘given up on trying to get the reporting app’” and promised to call in their results by phone. At the last minute, the DNC stepped in to demand that Shadow “provide it with real-time access to the raw results” so it could double-check them for errors — an extra step that seems to have made a bad situation worse (according to the audit, the reported irregularities in the results came from the DNC’s end rather than the data provided by the app itself).
Amazingly, given the time and energy sunk into its development and rollout, local party officials didn’t bother to make the app mandatory for precinct captains. On the day of the caucuses itself, a majority of Iowa’s precincts didn’t even try to use it. According to the audit, a “boiler room” set up to manage incoming calls soon proved ill-equipped to handle the deluge that inevitably came flooding in. The upshot?
Ultimately, there were a total of 5,816 incoming calls to the boiler room on February 3. Of those, 2,097 calls were neither answered nor picked up by the system before the caller hung up. And 2,593 incoming calls were abandoned (i.e., the caller gave up on getting through and hung up the phone while they were on hold). This suggests that 1,126 calls were actually patched through to the boiler room and answered by staff or a volunteer.
Though there are plenty of other minor details contained in the report, it would seem that this is more or less the saga of the Democratic Party’s Iowa caucus train wreck in brief: from badly delayed reporting app to logistical nightmare. Even with these details available, of course, one very important question still remains: namely, why the Democrats chose to attach such a logistically complicated piece of technology to their caucus in the first place (there being little doubt that a more traditional and analog system of reporting would have been easier and less prone to failure).
On this score, the report leaves an important part of the question unanswered, telling us only that the IDP decided to procure an app and that someone (or perhaps some group of people) in the Nevada State Democratic Party recommended Shadow. From here, we can only speculate. As a February report published by the Intercept detailed, the company (founded by alumni of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign) had intimate connections within the Democratic apparatus and close ties to ACRONYM, another organization tied personally and professionally to several establishment liberal figures and large donors:
A person with knowledge of the company’s [ACRONYM’s] culture, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, shared communications showing that top officials at the company regularly expressed hostility to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters. [ACRONYM co-founder Tara] McGowan is married to Michael Halle, a senior strategist with the Buttigieg campaign. . . . Shadow has also been retained for digital services by Buttigieg’s campaign, which paid the company $42,500 for software-related services last July, and by Joe Biden’s campaign, which paid Shadow $1,225 for text messaging services, last July as well. Shadow was launched by former staffers to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, including Niemira, Krista Davis, Ahna Rao, and James Hickey, according to professional biographies listed on LinkedIn. . . . Acronym, which includes a hybrid model of a 501(c)4 entity that does not disclose donors and a Super PAC that does, has been a favorite for deep-pocketed Democratic donors.
Based on the information contained within the report, there is certainly no evidence of actual foul play. But a plausible answer to the question posed above is that internal Democratic networks populated with operatives and consultants passively conspired to produce a process that was as convoluted as possible and, having done so, helped steer things toward a friendly vendor. This, of course, is only a supposition, and we may never know the real answer.
What we do know is that politics is as much a business as a democratic vocation for many of those involved — and that the result very rarely redounds to efficiency, transparency, or integrity.