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How a Denver-Based Startup Fucked Up the Iowa Caucus

Denver-based startup Shadow Inc. is behind the mobile software that caused widespread problems with Iowa's presidential caucuses.EXPAND
Denver-based startup Shadow Inc. is behind the mobile software that caused widespread problems with Iowa's presidential caucuses.
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In April 2019, Wired published a detailed look at the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to revamp its digital organizing infrastructure after a 2016 presidential election in which many operatives thought they'd been outclassed by Donald Trump's campaign. Among the experts quoted was Denver resident Gerard Niemira, a former staffer with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and one of the architects of what the story’s headline called “Democrats’ Plan to Fix Their Crumbling Data Operation.”

After experiencing firsthand the shortcomings of the DNC’s system four years ago, Wired’s Issie Lapowksy wrote, Niemira believed that it was “critical for Democrats to build tools that the average field staffer can access easily,” and boasted that his company, Washington, D.C.-based Acronym, was “building one such tool.”

Whoops!

Niemira now finds himself at the center of the controversy surrounding his startup Shadow Inc., the developer of a mobile app that caused widespread problems with the reporting of results data in the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus. Shadow was incorporated in Colorado in September, according to a filing with the secretary of state’s office, and received investment from Acronym, which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization committed to building power and digital infrastructure for the progressive movement.”

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“We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers,” Niemira said in a statement posted to Shadow’s website today, February 4.

As the nation tuned in to the highly anticipated, first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus Monday night, Democratic officials delayed the initial release of results after Shadow's app only reported "partial data." There is no evidence of any hacking or manipulation of vote counts or delegate totals: "Because of the required paper documentation, we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate," Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said in a statement.

“The underlying data and collection process via Shadow’s mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not,” Niemira's statement read.

Screenshots of Shadow's "IowaReporterApp" obtained by Vice show the many bugs and error messages experienced by caucus chairs in precincts throughout the state on Monday night. The New York Times reports that the app was developed in just two months and hadn't been extensively tested, while the Verge noted that it had been distributed in an unusual manner — the free version of a "test platform" known as TestFairy that may have limited the app to just 200 users.

The delays drew scathing criticism from many observers and spurred a new round of calls for the abolition of the Iowa caucuses, which have long faced criticism for potentially excluding voters who aren't able to participate in such a lengthy process.

Colorado moved to abolish its presidential caucus system in 2016 following complaints about overcrowding and other problems with the process. Next month, Colorado will hold a presidential primary election for the first time since 2000, but will still use a hybrid caucus system for congressional races, holding a series of party assemblies to select candidates to appear on the ballot in its June congressional primary. Colorado Democratic officials said today that the party will not use Shadow's software, or any other app, in its congressional caucuses.

“The Colorado Democratic Party will not be using any untested technology or digital apps of any kind to report the results of the Colorado caucuses,” David Pourshoushtari, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, said in a statement. “We will be reporting out using tried-and-true techniques of working directly with our county parties to receive the statewide caucus results. In light of the situation in Iowa, we will be doubling down on our efforts to stress-test our systems through dry runs and mock reporting so our caucuses go smoothly in March."

Meanwhile, election officials in Denver sought to reassure voters today that the votes they will cast in next month's presidential primary are safe and secure.

"There appear to be three key problems creating confusion in Iowa: a lack of transparency, a lack of training, and a failure to plan for contingencies," Denver elections director Jocelyn Bucaro said in a statement. "Election professionals are trained and certified to mitigate the risks of what happened in Iowa last night. Voters should be assured that their vote remains secure and they can trust that the results reported from election professionals are accurate."

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