Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A Predictable Whoops

The Iowa Caucus debacle should serve as an exemplification of how politics ruins everything.

It turns out that the mobile app that went awry was developed by a little-known start-up that was founded by—guess who— “veterans of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign who had presented themselves as gurus of campaigning in the digital era.” [1] The company, humorously named Shadow, Inc., “was picked in secret by the Iowa Democratic Party after its leaders consulted with the Democratic National Committee on vetting vendors and security protocols for developing a phone app used to gather and tabulate the caucus results.” [2] Apparently top-secret clearance was needed to be apprised of this insider chicanery.

There was an alternative. “Microsoft had developed a similar app that was successfully used by both parties in 2016, but this cycle Democrats turned to” [3] the more well-connected outfit. And it turns out that it was possible to simply telephone the results in, but the party decided that wouldn’t be as good as a technology developed by Democratic insiders. As a result, caucus organizers were “reporting they were on hold for over an hour before they were able to speak with someone.” [4]

And it isn’t as if they had no reason to anticipate this would happen. Douglas Jones, an election security expert, “had warned before the caucuses that the Iowa Democratic Party’s plan to deploy the unproven app during the high-stakes event was risky and had been undermined by excessive secrecy and a lack of public confidence in its ability.” [5] What’s more, Shadow was “handicapped by its own lack of coding know-how, according to people familiar with the company. Few of its employees had worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively inexperienced.” [6]

The modern allergy to low-tech has once again manifested its symptoms. Paper ballots, which cannot be hacked, and the time-proven process of counting, just aren’t good enough anymore. And when companies are awarded with business, not due to their competence, but because of their political connections, the results can be predicted.

There is no correlation between being a member of the political class and technical competence. It should also be evident by now that there is no correlation between being included in that august social tier and the ability to govern—but that is a lesson for another time.