By Charles Miller
A century ago, before radio and television, some big-city newspapers realized their readers were too impatient to wait for an “extra” edition of the paper to be printed. On election night the paper lit a light at the top of the tallest downtown skyscraper, red if one candidate won or blue for the other. In the 21st century the electorate is even more impatient and this pushed the Iowa Democratic Party to use untested technology in an attempt to instantly report the vote via the internet. The tech oriented newsgroups I follow are ablaze this week with news of how spectacularly that failed. In this United States election year there are mounting concerns about election integrity. The debacle of the Iowa caucuses should serve as a cautionary tale about electronic and internet voting.
The good news is that so far there does not seem to be any credible evidence of foreign interference in the Iowa caucuses. Some more good news is that the problems in Iowa should serve as an example warning everyone not to develop any new software system.
Mistake number one was using a smartphone app developed in secret by a company appropriately named Shadow Inc. Time and time again it has been proven that secrecy does not make for bug-free software. Allowing others to test it and check the computer code for mistakes results in better software. Reportedly the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the Department of Homeland Security offered to vet the app and the offer was refused.
The rushed timetable for developing the app, as well as a limited budget appear to be other factors contributing to the Iowa fiasco. According to the New York Times the election app was quickly put together in only two months and did not receive the kind of scrutiny that is normally afforded an important piece of software before being released to the public. Experienced software developers have characterized the reported software development budget figures with adjectives such as “inadequate” and “shoestring.” All software industry experts agree that developing quality software takes time and money.
Add to this the human factor: Reportedly there was not enough training provided to the Democratic Party election officials who were expected to use the new app. Predictably this led to news reports of people not being able to figure out how to use the app properly and even some reports of a small number of officials responsible for reporting vote totals who could not even figure out how to download or install the app.
Iowa is the 32nd most populous state in the US and this problem with reporting the vote affected only one of the two major political parties, so the damage is limited. The Iowa Democratic Party wisely used paper ballots as a backup so that results could eventually be reported to an impatient public. This episode underscores how technology is not always the solution to a problem, especially when new unforeseen problems are created by the solution.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.