Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Can I just state the obvious?

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 2/4/20

Technology and elections have proven to be a bad combination. We saw that play out once again on Monday night, when the breakdown of a smartphone app that Iowa Democrats thought would allow party …

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Can I just state the obvious?

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Technology and elections have proven to be a bad combination.
We saw that play out once again on Monday night, when the breakdown of a smartphone app that Iowa Democrats thought would allow party officials to quickly and easily report the results of their presidential caucuses, predictably melted down into a festering pile of goo.
After months of campaigning and tens of millions of dollars expended by more than a dozen candidates, the only definitive answer to come from Iowa was that party officials there either don’t know how to hire a credible technology firm, or don’t know how to operate their smartphones. Or, more likely, both.
While something resembling results of the caucuses eventually made its way into the public sphere, the Monday night meltdown inevitably lessened the impact of the news and, once again, left voters who had made the effort to participate feeling disenfranchised and disheartened through no fault of their own. Will we ever know the true results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses? Who knows? For all the time and money spent in the state, it will ultimately be New Hampshire that, hopefully, offers a more definitive take on the race come Tuesday. So, in the end, no one will likely even remember what happened in Iowa. They had their 15 minutes of fame and upchucked on stage in front of the television cameras. Clearly, it’s time to move on.
In the meantime, I can only hope it prompts a little soul-searching about the many ways that our love affair with high-tech has undermined confidence in our electoral processes. In every case, it’s the quest for quick results that leads to the kind of muddled mess we experienced in Iowa this week.
And it isn’t just electronic voting systems that we’ve somehow managed to foul up. Who can forget the bizarre “butterfly ballot” from Palm Beach County, Florida, that prompted thousands of little old Jewish ladies to mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan? Or the dimpled or hanging chads that befuddled election officials in Florida for days? It seems that there are always those looking to improve on the basic ballot, rarely with success.
The Florida election mess in 2000 prompted another technological “fix” as federal and state governments spent billions on a variety of fancy voting equipment, including touch screen machines, many without any paper backup. You just touch a screen and hope it records the vote you wanted. To many, this seemed like a disaster in the making, one that became frighteningly real in 2016 when we learned that Russian hackers had been working to punch through fire walls meant to protect voting results from remote manipulation. All our billions, in other words, bought us nothing but more potential trouble. They may not have succeeded in 2016, but what about this year?
Don’t get me wrong— technology has its place in our elections. But I like that old school technology— a paper ballot and a number two pencil. That’s technology that everyone knows how to use and that provides the ultimate backup whenever questions arise.
Monday night’s disaster was a classic failure of imagination. The tech guys who designed the app were undoubtedly young and smart (or maybe just arrogant?), but they apparently missed the fact that many of those who were supposed to use their creation were retirees who may know how to make a call or snap a photo on their smartphones, but little else. The new system was clearly not adequately tested and their supposed “fail-safe,” which involved calling the state party headquarters for instructions, simply jammed the phone lines. The help line left everyone helpless.
It was made worse by the fact that Iowans have taken a caucus process already known as complex and turned it into an indecipherable cluster. For years, here in Minnesota, caucus-goers received a simple presidential ballot and a pencil. We marked the box next to the candidate we preferred, the votes were tallied and phoned in, and we typically had most results in time for the ten-o-clock news. And if there were ever any questions, the ballots were there for everyone to review.
I’m not even going to try to explain the details of the process used in Iowa because I’m not sure I understand it. In general, there’s a “standing caucus,” where people assemble in different parts of the room based on their initial candidate preferences. Those who supported candidateswho didn’t reach a 15-percent “viability threshold” needed to move somewhere else for the second tally and, based on that final tally, “state delegate equivalents” are determined… by somebody.
Iowa should scrap this whole sorry mess if they expect anyone is going to allow them first bite at the presidential apple ever again.
In either case, forget the smartphone app that left everyone in the lurch. It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t helpful. By relying on an untested technology, party officials essentially wrecked the first contest of the Democratic presidential primary. By the time the supposed results were announced, the media glare had shifted to New England, so they barely mattered.
This is no way to pick a president.

caucus, technology

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