Iowa, thank you for reminding us of a fundamental truth about political tech: test it before you need it.
On edge since Election Day 2016, Democrats wanted the Iowa caucus to show us something, SOMETHING! definitive about how we will end the Trump Era. Instead, we get results delayed by a combination of a cellphone app and a set of new procedures, both of which failed when tried at scale. Oops.
Naturally, bad actors and cable news filled the gap with misinformation, speculation and conspiracy theories, a grim harbinger of how we’ll handle election hiccups in the months to come. But considering the difficulty in getting any kind of technology to work right the first time, a screw-up like this is entirely predictable.
Remember Mitt Romney’s Project Orca? The campaign hailed it as “the Republican Party’s newest, unprecedented and most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election”. Designed in part to track which voters had cast ballots at any point on Election Day to aid last-minute GOTV, Orca failed the first time the campaign tried it at national scale — on Election Day. Not surprisingly, a similar Obama 2008 project ALSO failed under the same pressure, since it turns out that this day-of tech stuff is hard. Ask me about a friend’s SXSW hotel-registration app sometime: tested only on a small scale, it cratered instantly as thousands of people tried to use it at once.
The lesson? If it absolutely has to work on Election Day, test it with real people. Test your tech and procedures repeatedly, test them with extreme outlier cases and test them at the largest scale you can. I doubt that this week’s Iowa debacle will undermine the legitimacy of the Democratic Party just yet, but it’s both embarrassing and avoidable. But the wave of bad-faith discussion that followed shows that the real danger to our system isn’t a technical glitch; it’s the lying, in this case amplified by lazy pundits and news outlets hungry for eyeballs, neither of which is going away between now and November. That’s the only real certainty we can take away from yesterday in Iowa.