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Use of voting tabulation apps raise red flags on Capitol Hill

A new vote counting app used Monday night by the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) that significantly delayed results from the state’s caucuses is raising red flags about their use going forward.

Republicans seized on the issue to argue that Democrats had marred their own nominating contest, though Democrats themselves said the Iowa debacle underscored concerns about how technology can harm the integrity of U.S. elections.

“In order for Democracy to work, Americans must have confidence in their election infrastructure. Yesterday, we saw a breakdown of the Iowa Democratic Party’s technology that could have been easily preventable,” Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said in a statement Tuesday blasting the IDP for its use of the vote tabulation app. 

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who had questioned the Democratic National Committee (DNC) multiple times about its use of the app in advance of the Iowa caucuses, railed against it Tuesday, tweeting that “my warnings about this technology were ignored, and the result is chaos and a loss of confidence in our elections.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), the co-chairman of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, told The Hill that Iowa had added “an unnecessary layer of technology to the voting process.”

Iowa officials tried to calm concerns on Tuesday, with Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst (R) and Chuck Grassley (R) putting out a joint statement with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) saying that “Iowans and all Americans should know we have complete confidence that every last vote will be counted and every last voice will be heard.” 

But election experts warned that steps must be taken by the IDP to ensure that concerns around the app do not have a negative impact on voter confidence and voter turnout in the future. 

“I think it will be important going forward to have a postmortem in which folks are able to understand what transpired and what took place both good and bad to determine what can be done better going forward, because that has implications potentially for 2020 and also for future elections as well,” David Levine, the elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Hill.

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The IDP blamed the delay on the app used to tabulate votes, which was built by Shadow Inc., a tech company affiliated with Democratic nonprofit Acronym. 

“As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound,” IDP Chairman Troy Price said in a statement. “While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system.”

Price said the issue was fixed and did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately. He also emphasized that no votes were changed, and that the voting tabulation issues were not caused by a cyberattack.

Shadow has been paid by multiple presidential campaigns — including those of former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) — and state Democratic parties.

The Nevada Democratic Party, which had been planning to use the same app during the upcoming Nevada caucuses, took steps on Tuesday to distance itself from the app, and released a statement saying they would no longer use the app. 

Complicating matters further in Iowa were reports that caucus volunteers were not trained properly in how to use the app, which was reportedly rolled out only weeks in advance of the caucuses. 

Liz Howard, the former deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, told The Hill that rolling out a new app, and not fully training volunteers, was like “rolling out new registers on Black Friday,” and “generally not a good idea.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday that the agency’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had offered to vet the Shadow app, but were turned down.

But IDP Chairman Price pushed back on Wolf’s comments, saying during a news conference Tuesday afternoon that the IDP had “no knowledge” of an offer from the Department of Homeland Security to vet the app. 

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) told The Hill that he found the botched use of the app “deeply troubling and deeply concerning.” And Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Tuesday that what happened with the app’s use in Iowa could have ripple effects throughout the rest of the 2020 election process.

“As we get further into the 2020 primaries, what happened in Iowa is an early warning sign that Congress, local officials, and the social media platform companies have much more work to do to ensure the integrity of our elections,” Warner said.

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