Iowa caucus app fiasco highlights need for IT best practices

Welcome to election tech debacle No. 1 in what's likely to become many more.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

An app snafu has Iowa election officials trying to count results via old fashioned paper trails to figure out the final counts and what Democrat won the primary.

Welcome to election tech debacle No. 1 in what's likely to become many more.

Also: 100+ critical IT policies every company needs, ready for download 

The Iowa plan was relatively simple: Count support for candidates and report back via an app. What happened in practice was that the app didn't scale, connectivity was spotty and now we're all waiting for hand counting. The Huffington Post reported that the company behind the app is called Shadow, which has a system called Lightrail, a "universal adapter for political data" that aims to make "complicated workflows simple."

We'll leave the political angle to others, but perhaps the biggest takeaway is this: Election technology should use applications that business already use and are proven to scale. According to NPR, this app-meets-election approach was basically beta tested during the Iowa caucus. Officials were secretive about the app even though there were security concerns, according to NPR.

In a Tweet, Shadow said:

We will apply the lessons learned in the future, and have already corrected the underlying technology issue. We take these issues very seriously, and are committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party's goal of modernizing its election processes.  

Here are some high-level IT thoughts:

  • Shadow claims to be a progressive political data technology company, but in the end aren't all elections basically customer relationships, data and nurturing campaigns? Aren't all campaigns really marketing? Why wouldn't you use already proven technologies in these areas?
  • It makes no sense to pick a technology provider without a real RFP process. We don't know how Iowa made its choices, but there are technology playbooks that have been well established as well as examples of what NOT to do. All any candidate or state org has to do is look at the Obama playbook. Obama built on an Amazon Web Services stack that became elections as a service. The Obama campaign used Salesforce. Go with proven technologies.
  • Security is critical and the first step of any technology selection process must start there.
  • Data management and analytics will be key and there are multiple silos to overcome. States, political parties and candidates all have their own databases. Connecting them and managing messaging is critical as well as analyzing potential outcomes.
  • There are plenty of best practices to follow. Just because you have a political campaign doesn't mean that what you're doing is any different technologically.

See: Chaos reigns on Iowa caucus night as final results delayed CBS News

The details of what happened in Iowa will come out over time, but I'm willing to bet that there are plenty of skeletons in the technology management closet already.

Updated with Shadow response at 3:03 p.m. EST. 

Editorial standards