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Candidates In Limbo As Malfunctions Delay Results Of Iowa Caucuses

Feb 4, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 8:38 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the second day in a row, we're in the fabulous coffee shop here. It is called Smokey Row Coffee Company in Des Moines...

(CHEERING)

GREENE: ...Doing our show in front of an audience after the caucuses. So how many of you caucused last night?

(CHEERING)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah?

GREENE: Like, everybody.

MARTIN: Pretty much everyone.

GREENE: Clap if you had - if there were problems at your caucus sites.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Yeah, a few.

GREENE: A third, maybe? A fourth? A third? Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. So who had a perfect caucus? Everything went smoothly.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Yeah. OK. OK, more people it was fine, but there have been some big problems because we don't have any results to talk about (laughter). And so we're going to explain why we don't have results with NPR's Miles Parks, who covers election security and has been covering all of this from Washington, D.C. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So explain, Miles. There've been all these technical problems that have delayed the results. We're supposed to know later today who won the Iowa caucuses, but what happened?

PARKS: Yeah. The story at this point is actually what didn't happen. Basically, the results never really made it up from the precinct level. These more than 1,600 precincts across Iowa are supposed to transmit their results after the caucuses up to the state level who's supposed to, you know, transmit who won. The state party unveiled a new app this year where, using their smartphone, precinct leaders were supposed to enter results and transmit results that way. That app has been nothing short of, honestly, a disaster. We heard from a lot of precinct leaders who had trouble logging in, downloading it. And then the backup system that was in place by the state party was this hotline number. Because the app had so many issues, the hotline got overwhelmed. We heard from a number of precinct leaders who waited with a busy signal to this hotline for over an hour to try and transmit the results. I talked to a precinct leader in Des Moines County. His name is Tom Courtney (ph). He kind of walked me through the process.

TOM COURTNEY: Me and my secretary both tried to call for 45 minutes at the location. And finally, I said, to heck with that. We're going home. I went and sat in an empty cafeteria at the high school and wait to call it in. If I can't get through in a reasonable amount of time, I'll just go home.

PARKS: So he just went home, and he said he was just going to try again in the morning. A lot of frustration - you can hear it in his voice.

MARTIN: Right.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, Miles, we're actually hearing the same thing from people here in Des Moines - actually, right here that the coffee shop. Ann Fitzgerald (ph) was helping run a precinct just outside Des Moines. Her colleague was trying to call the result in, and here's what happened.

ANN FITZGERALD: We were ahead of schedule. It moved quickly. One person, the chair of a caucus, tried to send the results electronically, you know, through the phone. And it wasn't working. It wasn't working. So she called a number and said, I'll just report it by voice. And she put her phone on speaker, and it was on for an hour before a live person answered.

GREENE: Miles, what are the implications of this, not just for getting results but for, I mean, the future of technology in elections?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, I think there were a lot of worries going into this. I want to make it very clear that this is not something that is super surprising to a lot of people who've been following the Iowa caucuses closely. We at NPR, with Iowa Public Radio, were the first outlet a month ago to break this story about the fact that they were going to use this smartphone app. And cybersecurity experts for the last few weeks have been saying, we don't know how this thing has been tested. We don't know what - even what company developed it. We don't know how the precinct leaders have been practicing on it. There were a lot of issues the last couple weeks just with transparency, being sure that, with this election that was going to have the national spotlight, was everything going to go correctly? Obviously, it did not. And that is going to have national implications. This was the first test of 2020. After, obviously, the 2016 saw so much issues in terms of election administration, for this to be the first national, you know, spotlighted election in the 2020 cycle, it's something that is going to worry election officials going forward.

GREENE: That's NPR's Miles Parks in Washington, D.C., this morning. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Now, we've really been trying to figure out what actually went wrong with this app. Was it people just not knowing how to use it? Was there something wrong with the technology? We reached Elesha Gayman. She's the chair of the Scott County Democrats. Scott County's in the far eastern edge of Iowa along the Mississippi River. She told me that precincts there experienced a lot of difficulties using this phone app to submit their results because, in her mind, there was just too much security. Here she is.

ELESHA GAYMAN: And this app, it was unique. It's not something you can download in the App Store. You actually had to fill out a form. In addition to that, you've got a series of PIN numbers. And so, yeah, there was a lot of layers, and I think that absolutely mucked it up. Anecdotally, a few of the people I do know who used the app successfully were younger people. But I do know some young people that also had troubles - just the so many layers.

GREENE: And we should say Elesha Gayman, that county chair, said that she firmly stands by the results and that the state party is going to be able to use paper and figure out the voting. It's just going to take a little while.

MARTIN: Right. It's just going to take awhile. So on the line now - NPR's Scott Detrow and NPR's Asma Khalid. They were just here. They were just in Des Moines late last night. They got on a flight, though, to Manchester, N.H., where they have company. A lot of the candidates have also made that journey on to New Hampshire, they hope. But there is so much ambiguity in the air. Scott, let's start with you. The Iowa Democratic Party has released a statement about all these reporting problems. Can you tell us what it said?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Yeah. We learned two things from the statement. So in the middle of the night last night, Asma and I were on a very awkward, very brief call with state party chair Troy Price where he said we will announce the result today. In the statement, he seemed to provide some wiggle room and walk that back. The quote is, "well, our plan is to release results as soon as possible today. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld." Between the lines - seems like maybe not today. He also provided a key update on what might have gone wrong. He says the underlying data collected via that app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, the statement reads, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue. He says the reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately. So it seems like the accurate data is in there somewhere, but there was a coding problem last night.

MARTIN: So you guys were both in Iowa last night. I mean, Asma, you were out and about. Did you see any problems?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: You know, at the particular caucus site that I went to, I did not see any problems, and this was a fairly large site. There were about 850 people who showed up to caucus there. It went pretty smoothly. But, you know, I think what's interesting to me is after that when I went to the Biden HQ celebration party, I did talk to a number of people in the crowd, and it didn't seem like it went smoothly for everyone there. You know, we met some folks who were first-time caucus-goers who expressed a frustration in just how arcane the system had felt to them. They had never caucused before but said that it took them multiple times to just go around the room and get the count correctly and have everybody agree on how many people were there. One person in particular told us that she just felt so frustrated that she wishes that they had a primary, and she doesn't think she's going to caucus again in the future. And, you know, Rachel, this all comes at a time when the Iowa caucuses have already gotten under a lot of attack in the past few months for being this arcane system. People have questioned why Iowa goes first. And this certainly doesn't help their case.

GREENE: Scott, speaking of the candidates, I mean, Asma said she was at Biden's HQ. The candidates, even though there were no results last night, came out. They gave speeches. I mean, what can we take from that? No clear winner, no clear loser - are the candidates just trying to exploit the moment for themselves in some way?

DETROW: Remember all of 24 hours ago when I was hanging out with you at Smokey Row and I said there could be a really confusing situation where different candidates read results different ways and each claim victory?

GREENE: So this is all your fault.

MARTIN: Scott, you were right.

DETROW: Well, this - in fact, the actual situation is far, far more confusing. Multiple ambiguous victory speeches last night with no data. And after that, we had campaigns releasing their own partial results of caucus totals, showing them in the lead. So you have Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg claiming that they may have won, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar saying they did better than expected. They did really well. It's notable to me that the one campaign not making a claim like this is Joe Biden. In fact, the Biden campaign is urging caution. Last night, they released a statement saying let's hold off on knowing - on releasing the full results until we know what's going on.

GREENE: Well, what does that tell us about the Biden campaign? What does all this tell us about other candidates? Who was this good for? Who stands to lose from this delay?

KHALID: Well, what we can tell you, David, is that the Biden campaign had been setting expectations fairly low for Iowa for months, at this point, publicly. You know, I spoke with a Biden staffer over the weekend and I asked, you know, you all have been saying you don't really anticipate coming first. And he said, you know, I think we're the only campaign who could come in third or fourth and still be all right coming out of Iowa. I mean, that's pretty phenomenal, in my view, language to say - you don't usually hear campaigns making that argument. And they've had long said that they don't just see this to be a contest in Iowa, that the former vice president would likely perform better in later, more diverse states. And so they see the first four voting states as something, you know, analysts should look at collectively. But, you know, in terms of who else looks good, I would say, you know, there are campaigns who poured a lot of energy into doing well here, and now it seems like, at this point at least, without clear results, everybody's getting a participation trophy. And we don't actually see the results of, say, of like a Pete Buttigieg or an Amy Klobuchar, who hypothetically might have actually done better because they did pour a lot of resources into this state.

MARTIN: Right.

DETROW: And just..

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's a good way to put it.

MARTIN: Yeah, go ahead, Scott.

DETROW: And just to very quickly add onto that, we've talked so much about the relatively small number of delegates that Iowa actually has, that really the value of Iowa is getting that boost of momentum, setting the agenda, getting the coverage of you as the winner. That's out the window now. I mean, I don't know what it's going to look like when someone eventually wins the Iowa caucuses at some point this week. It's certainly not going to be a big celebration in front of thousands of cheering supporters carried all over the news and talked about the next day.

GREENE: Because the candidates aren't going to be here anymore.

DETROW: No, they're here in New Hampshire with us.

MARTIN: Right. Because - we should know. There's a debate Friday night, right?

KHALID: There is. And I think that'll be, assuming we get results before then, a real clear sense then of how the dynamic in this race is shaking out.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid and Scott Detrow - they're covering the campaign. They joined us from Manchester, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.