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Inside the Iowa Democratic Party's "boiler room" meltdown

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From Salon

A review of materials left on desks revealed it was unprepared on many levels for Monday's meltdown.

Iowa City Caucus.
Iowa City Caucus.
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Citizensharp, Author: Citizensharp)
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The app and software that failed to report and count the Iowa Democratic Party's 2020 presidential caucus results were not the only miscalculation by the IDP and its vendor.

Its "boiler room" or secret operations center was unprepared to handle the chaos that ensued. Fewer than 100 computers and phones were set up for IDP volunteers to receive the results and complaints. IDP help desk materials anticipated problems with the app, including that some caucus chairs would end up calling in their results. The IDP's instructions were complex, but they were also lacking some basics, according to experts in voting technology systems.

"In general, there is no documentation of what to do if various other problems arise," said David Jefferson, a voting systems software expert who has studied and critiqued electronic election infrastructure since the 1990s. He is an executive board member of Verified Voting, a national advocacy group founded by computer scientists and academics.

"The universal answer seems to be, 'If you have a problem, call in your results,'" he continued. "That might make sense if the app and the server were so robust that there were almost never any problems, and if the training of the caucus chairs was thorough so that they were all confident that they knew how to handle it. But apparently that was not the case."

New revelations about the IDP "boiler room" offer important lessons. Nevada's 2020 Democratic Party presidential caucus starts with early voting on Saturday, February 15. Its party officials have ditched their plans to use the same reporting app and system that failed in Iowa's 2020 presidential caucus. While the Nevada Democratic Party has said that it might use paper-based voting in precinct caucuses, it has not released further specifics.

Meanwhile, DNC Chairman Tom Perez has called on Iowa's state party to recount its results amid complaints from campaigns -- a process that the IDP's 2020 rules only anticipated if a campaign filed a formal request and paid for it upfront.

(On Thursday, Bloomberg.com reported that Donald Trump's supporters apparently "flooded a hotline used by Iowa precinct chairs" after finding its number online. This was a development that nobody in state or national party circles overseeing the caucuses had voiced beforehand. Instead, they had focused on more complex cybersecurity threats.)

Inside IDP's boiler room

The vote counting and help desk operations center was tucked into two conference rooms in the mezzanine above Veterans Memorial Hall at the Iowa Events Center -- the opposite end of the same complex where a media filing center hosted TV networks whose analysts spent hours Monday night trashing the IDP for failing to release the caucus results. As the night unfolded, the party announced that irregularities in the counting, software glitches and jammed phones all collided and pushed the IDP to abandon using its results-reporting app and switch to compiling results from paper summary sheets from nearly 1,700 precincts.

Voting Booth found the boiler room on Wednesday. While IDP officials were continuing to compile results in one room, this reporter saw the other room. It was empty but still set up as an operations center. It had computers, phones, routers; training materials on desks, help desk scripts and forms for taking caucus results and other complaints; an "app FAQ" sheet for caucus chairs who experienced problems and other instructions on wall posters.

The training materials were for a session that occurred on Sunday -- one day before the 2020 caucus. An agenda said it included a "brief description of the caucus night set up," "boiler room set up" work shifts, rules in the room, phone security and questions. Voting Booth took photos and shared them with Verified Voting's Jefferson for context.

Jefferson concluded that the boiler room had less than half the staff that it needed at peak hours to field calls; that its FAQ and other help desk materials omitted key information -- even as it anticipated that caucus chairs would encounter problems logging in and using passwords. He also noted what appeared to be additional missing elements that added to the congestion and reporting meltdown, such as the app not saying that results had been successfully received, which prompted caucus chairs to call in to confirm that they had been received -- further clogging the phone lines.

The operations center was a windowless rectangular room filled with a half-dozen rows of long desks covered in black tablecloth. On each desk sat two or three laptop computers and a phone, all hardwired by Ethernet cables to a server in the room. The front desks had piles of a "2020 Precinct Caucus Guide" that summarized procedures, piles of forms to report results and other problems, and red and blue folders with these documents and others -- such as app FAQs and phone scripts.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)
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