The calamity in Iowa has raised questions about the role of technology in our campaigns.
The introduction of last-minute tech delivered insufficient data to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP), leaving the leadoff caucus in limbo and, in turn, fueling conspiracy theories and reckless suspicions that undermined faith in our elections.
But disastrous experiences with flawed technology shouldn’t trigger a wholesale abandonment of novel digital tools. It necessitates careful dissection to avoid future mistakes while continuously investing in the technology that Democrats will need to ensure historic turnout in November.
New technologies have positively transformed American politics throughout our history. The radio helped FDR mobilize every American into a great struggle, television technology beamed Kennedy’s optimism around the world, and early social networks helped organize an improbable journey for Obama.
As co-founders of a business accelerator program, we have invested in Democratic political-technology startups that engage new voters, unburden campaign workers, and help underdog candidates fight for new voice and power across the country. While we were not involved with the technology deployed in Iowa, we are active investors and evangelists for stronger campaign technology, and previously invested in GroundBase, Gerard Niemira's predecessor company to Shadow Inc.
Over the past three years, the 36 companies in our portfolio have served over 6,000 campaigns and causes, including every House race in the 2018 midterms and every Democratic presidential campaign in 2020. Our technologies have helped reach close to 40 million American voters and have remained uncompromised, online and stable throughout the 2018 election.
Successful political technology requires time, adequate budget, ample opportunities for field testing, and robust training. It appears from public reporting that the last-minute introduction of new technology into the Iowa caucus benefited from none of these.
Here are the lessons to take away from last week’s disaster:
Don’t build when you can buy.
Political buyers have to ignore a tempting siren call: to build what might already exist. There are many strong, stable, and safe political and commercial tools (Google Sheets!) that can be used for mission-critical political work that don’t require rushed invention. Campaigns and state parties should avoid the temptation to build in-house, when there exists already a healthy ecosystem of proven and tested technologies.
Technology requires time.
Time to develop, test, garner user feedback, and ramp up towards use on a large scale. It appears Shadow’s software app was built just two months before Election Day. This is hardly enough time to build a beta product, let alone a product that can be reliably rolled out to additional states within a matter of weeks. Political technologies that have been immensely successful, like the adoption of peer-to-peer texting, has been tested over multiple campaigns cycles, and with many different buyers to provide feedback.
IRL campaign adoption is critical.
A software application can be beautifully engineered, but if users struggle to download it or to use it, the horsepower will remain idle. It’s the responsibility of tech developers to design with real human beings in mind, including volunteers who might feel less comfortable or less familiar using digital apps. In the case of Iowa, the majority of users were logging into the app for the first time on Caucus Day.
Test, and retest everything.
Though the app was reportedly tested in the run-up to the caucus, it was not sufficiently stress-tested to catch coding errors in reporting to the IDP. New technology, especially that which is mission-critical on Election Day, must be subjected to imaginative scenario planning and constant testing, with enough time to catch and correct glitches.
Have a backup plan.
Campaigns often operate in a fog of uncertainty due to the chaos and unpredictability of politics. This requires guardrails and backup plans. While the IDP did have a backup phone system in place, it wasn’t adequately staffed, stranding some caucus workers on hold for several hours. Trump supporters deliberately flooded the phone lines to wreak further havoc. Democrats must prioritize and resource back-up plans to technology as we do any other piece of infrastructure.
The technology failure in Iowa had a devastating impact. It was heartbreaking for the organizers and volunteers who have worked tirelessly for months towards Caucus Night. More importantly, it stole focus from the voters who spent the evening putting democracy into action.
But it’s both troubling and unrealistic to call for retreat from modernizing our campaigns with secure technologies. Technology is interwoven into the fabric of our society and we must be practical about its implications in our civic lives.
Shomik Dutta & Betsy Hoover are the co-founders of Higher Ground Labs, an investment fund and accelerator program with a portfolio of over 36 progressive political tech companies.