Last week the 2020 election season kicked off with the Iowa caucuses. From here we will be bombarded with political ads over the air waves and on our streets. We hope you are ready for this. If you paid attention to this you might have heard about the debacle that the Democratic Party’s caucus turned into with regards to their use of technology. It turns out that the app that was being used to count the votes was actually being beta tested (or at the very least had never been fully vetted) and this gives us all a good example of when not to beta test.

What Is Beta Testing?

New technology needs to be tested to work out issues and beta testing plays a large role in this. With beta testing a piece of technology is put into use in the real world to see how it reacts in real world scenarios. In many cases the information gleaned from this is the most valuable information to be had as there may be many situations that laboratory or alpha testing cannot foresee.

Every piece of technology that you use has been beta tested. For people who are selected to do beta testing it is a great way to get their hands on something long before the average person does. Of course it does not always work out but sometimes it can be quite lucrative.

What Happened In Iowa?

Our elections are changing. The possibility of us being able to use our smartphones to vote is closer than we think. It is believed that this convenience will allow for more voter participation in a time when voter participation is declining. For the Iowa caucuses the Democratic Party decided to utilize an app to count support and report to state party leaders. It sounds good on the surface with instant results and real-time reporting that can determine a winner as soon as the polls close while minimizing or eliminating math errors.

But that is not how it went. It turns out that the app, created by a company (perhaps inappropriately) called Shadow and called Lightrail, was not only thrown into the wild for the first time but was essentially beta tested in Iowa and bypassed Android and Apple app store scrutiny to be distributed through test platforms. In what could be a conflict of interest presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg paid for software rights and subscriptions to Shadow and Joe Biden and former candidate Kirsten Gillibrand paid the company for consultant services. Following that revelation as well as that of one of Buttigieg’s staffer’s spouse was a principal person involved with Shadow it has proven to be a major embarrassment and has led to some believing that Buttigieg used it to manipulate the results in his favor after he gave a premature victory speech creating the trending hashtag #mayorcheat. He was eventually named the winner narrowly over Bernie Sanders, though Sanders has called for a partial recanvass so the saga is not over yet.

Shadow was started by two former Hillary Clinton staffers as part of a nonprofit started by a former Barack Obama staffer. The Department of Homeland Security offered to beta test the app for both functionality and security but Shadow declined.

An Idea Fit For 2020

Caucus goers would make their choice and party leaders would submit them to the Iowa Democratic Party via the app. Each result is witnessed in-person which reduces the risk of a cyber attack changing the results and paper records are retained if a hand count is necessary. In the past a phone call from each of the 1,700 precincts would be how the results are reported to the state party and that was time consuming. The app would also calculate the number of delegates that the candidates are awarded automatically.

But Not Ready For Today

The problem is, the security of the app has been called into question. Of course there are a myriad of reasons why an app would not work or could be attacked like a denial of service attack and that had experts concerned. The app would be downloaded onto the phones of party and caucus leaders and not to party-owned phones. The Democratic Party has released no information regarding the app like how information would be protected to the public though promising to do so. 

There was of course another issue at play here and that is what happens if cell service is poor in an area or the area lacks a good Internet connection or a wi-fi connection. The digital divide has been closed in the last few years in rural Iowa but many Iowans still have been slow to adapt new technology and it is believed that some party officials may still have a flip phone which will not be able to use the app.

The process to get the app was convoluted and confusing. For some party leaders who are older (and need their grandkids to program the DVR if they even have one) this was not a smooth process and the end results should be no surprise. 

Coding Error

Originally the Democratic National Convention had planned to allow Iowans to be given the ability to vote remotely using the Internet or phone-in voting. That plan was scrapped since no system was secure enough and available. This is part of the reason why security experts are against the usage of this app.

The Trump Administration has been a comedy of errors for the Democratic Party and this one is just another in a long chain of them. As can be expected with any first-time used technology there would be issues and they came aplenty to the point that the app did not work providing only partial data due to a “coding error”. An error that would have probably been caught had actual beta testing been performed before being released.

The error prevented reports from being made which led to precinct leaders being forced to call in the results including the now-infamous incident where one was kept on hold for an hour only to be hung up on while being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN

Not The Place To Beta Test

Now, the question of why the Democratic Party would essentially beta test an app in something as prominent as a presidential election leaves a lot of people scratching their head. These past few years have not been kind to them and they may have viewed this as a way to connect with the more technologically sound voters and somewhat rehab their image. But doing this during a presidential primary is not the best place to work out kinks. Every candidate believed that they did well in Iowa with some like Bernie Sanders released (notoriously incorrect) internal polling as proof. Many even gave victory speeches though Buttigieg emerged victorious after a hand count that took several days.

The voting in Iowa is some of the most fiercely contested in the country as candidates spend weeks campaigning there. The eyes of the nation were on Iowa and the Democrats emerged with no winner for several days and a lot of egg on their face. Coming off the heels of the failure to remove Donald Trump from office 2020 as well as the failure of a lawsuit against Trump regarding the emoluments clause on Friday 2020 is not starting off well for them. This has created a field day for conspiracy theorists and certainly makes the DNC look less than competent with perhaps the most lively night on CSPAN ever as many Democratic voters voiced their displeasure.

The app was set to be used as part of the Nevada caucus in late February but it was scrapped following the Iowa debacle

When Nicely Done Sites builds a website it undergoes major testing in a sandbox environment before that site goes live. While we may not be able to find every single issue this allows us to iron out most of them before a single person in the public can see it. There is a reason that it is done and in this case Shadow failed miserably in a very public fashion. This testing takes time but it should be done and done correctly to make sure things are working the way they should be. Don’t skimp on testing, whether it is with your website in a sandbox environment or by a beta test for a product! You can learn a lot and potentially save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

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