‘App-ocalypse’ in the Iowa caucus

Did party officials forget about Murphy's Law?

Ericka Petersen, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, brought her two children, ages 3 and 1, to the Iowa satellite caucus in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Robin Bravender, States Newsroom.)

Technology changes everything it touches, without itself being changed much at all. Introduce it into the economy, and the economy is all about technology. Introduce it into education, and education is about the technology. Introduce it into elections, and you have the Iowa Democratic Caucus.

The value of the caucus is multi-fold, and many in media fail to appreciate the community and communal aspects of it. You meet with neighbors in your district. You get a card with a front and back ballot. You name your first choice on the front ballot, and if that candidate garners a set minimum of votes to be viable, you’re done. But you also get a second chance if your candidate is declared not viable because too few people supported them. You can vote for another favorite.

You can’t do that in a voting booth.

Thereafter, though, the process becomes complicated. Very complicated.

A phone app was going to make that all so simple. Uh-huh.

Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine.”

Anytime you use technology, you need a Plan B. Anyone who uses technology — from PowerPoint presentations to Skype conferences — has a Plan B. The Iowa Democratic Party didn’t have one.

Instead, they listened to technology advocates who sell apps by touting Moore’s Law, with speed and capabilities doubling every few years. We know another law, Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will.

That’s what happened.

The New York Times was all over this phenomenon, reporting that the app was created by Shadow Inc., a for-profit company. The Times cited Georgetown computer science professor Matt Blaze who stated the obvious: Apps rely on dependable digital networks and operating smartphones to run properly. “The consensus of all experts who have been thinking about this is unequivocal. Internet and mobile voting should not be used at this time in civil elections.”

The app-ocalypse in Iowa might very well bring an end to the state’s caucus and its first-in-the-nation status. Political pundits often criticize the state with its near 3 million residents, and 94% white population, as being non-representative of the nation’s identity. But Iowa’s caucus does offer something of value: It affords candidates a chance to visit with just about everyone of all social classes and interact with us in everyday environments in the year or more leading up to the vote.

All that is in jeopardy, and not only because of the app.

As of this writing, it has been 12 hours since the caucusing ended, and the media are taking prisoners. Here’s a sampling of news stories:

Really?

We’re all living in accelerated digital time. Technology does that. We want what we want when we want it: on demand. We want data on demand. We want to know. Who won, who lost, what’s the meaning of all this? TV talking heads were poised to answer all of that.

One humorous aspect of the no-result Iowa caucus is how irritated media organizations become with their pricey pundits in downsized newsrooms having absolutely nothing to talk about. It was mildly enjoyable seeing CNN’s Wolf Blitzer grow apoplectic as the evening progressed, trying to rally panels of experts to say something, anything, other than “we’re waiting for results.”

Presidential candidates had planes to catch and wanted to flee Iowa even though the weather, at least for Iowans, was a balmy 30+ degrees on caucus night.

In the end, we will know who won the caucus. The results will be accurate because — and this is important, everyone, so please listen up — we’re not talking “hanging chads.” There are voting cards with our names on them and precinct captains have those cards in their possession.

In the meantime, the media circus will have moved on to New Hampshire. The Iowa results will have less of an impact because state party officials relied on technology instead of common sense.

They used an app called Shadow, and it cast a shadow on the future of our caucus.

(Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine.”  He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”)