Updated at 10:58 p.m. ET on February 4, 2020.
It’s all fun and games until someone’s app messes up the Democratic Iowa caucus.
Before yesterday’s debacle, “Shadow” was merely a playful name. A small team of political technologists had given it to their company when it launched early last year, largely as a reference to their primary product: Lightrail, which is supposed to make moving data among different campaign tools easier. Light and Shadow, get it?
That might have been clever in a conference room. But now the name seems sinister. After problems with an app made by Shadow, the Iowa Democratic Party had to postpone announcing the results of yesterday’s caucus, throwing the presidential race into chaos, enraging Democrats and Republicans alike, and birthing a ton of conspiracy theories about hacking and other malicious interventions.
How could this have happened? At this early juncture, the Shadow situation seems like a testament to the faith that people place in technology and political insiders. (The company’s core team, led by CEO Gerard Niemira, is made up of veterans of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2016.) Shadow incorporated only in September, meaning that a crucial piece of the Iowa caucus was in the hands of a company that was technically five months old. Despite serious warnings from experts, Iowa’s Democratic Party handed part of its election infrastructure to a highly networked start-up with a handful of engineers building an entirely untried app. The resulting mess shows the deeply interconnected nature of political operatives and the risks of chasing the newest new thing.
In preparation for the caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party wanted to update its reporting infrastructure, moving away from a system in which the state’s precincts would phone in results to the state party and introducing an app the precincts could use to simply upload the information. The party paid Shadow $60,000 over the past few months to develop an app called IowaReporterApp, according to financial disclosures. In principle, this is not a complicated application. It must send the results from 1,700 precincts to a central office for tabulation. The caucus runners had to take and upload a picture of their results, which were then supposed to be captured by the app.
But something or somethings went wrong. Vice detailed failed attempts to log in to the app, and noted that very little testing could have been completed on the app, because of the short development period. In cases when precinct chairs were able to log in, according to CNN, the Shadow app struggled at the final step of the results-reporting process. A precinct chair told CNN that after the precinct chairs uploaded the photo, “the app showed different numbers than what they had submitted as captured in their screenshot.”
The Iowa Democratic Party appears to have confirmed that this is what went wrong. “While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system,” the party’s chair, Troy Price, said in a statement this morning. “This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”
To damp down fears about the integrity of the data, the Iowa Democratic Party has emphasized the existence of a paper trail, a key facet of election integrity. “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,” Price said.
Over the past 20 years, small technology companies like Shadow have become an important piece of what it is to run for office. You need websites, digital advertising, and voter-data handling, as well as fundraising and voter outreach via text and email. While large campaigns can afford their own tech teams, most candidates and pieces of the party infrastructure rely on outside vendors, which supply them with software. Before this week, Shadow had highlighted only one client: the Hampden Township Democratic Club, in New Jersey.
Niemira, the CEO of Shadow, was the director of product for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, working on voter-outreach tools. One staffer who worked closely with Niemira described him as “an exceptionally nice guy who knew what he was doing,” and told me that the email and text-messaging tools his team built worked well. (The staffer requested anonymity for privacy reasons.)
Even if someone is not a grifter or a shady character, if you look anywhere in political tech, you’ll find a dizzying web of connections. The reason is that campaigns are short-term affairs, so people jump from one job to another, sometimes founding consultancies or small companies. Shadow has precisely that profile. It sold its text-messaging platform to many political organizations, including Pete Buttigieg’s and Joe Biden’s campaigns.
It seems clear that Shadow will take the fall here, even if the behind-the-scenes story of what went wrong with the app is probably complicated. The company fell on its sword on Twitter, apologizing. One crucial piece is what role another new and well-funded nonprofit called Acronym (another cheeky name!) played in the Iowa debacle. Acronym has received massive funding ($75 million) from Silicon Valley technologists and other wealthy individuals to build campaign tech for progressives. According to Niemira’s profile on LinkedIn, he was the CTO of Acronym until the spring of 2019, while also serving as the founder and CEO of a separate company, Groundbase, until Shadow spun up. (Both Shadow and Acronym have not responded to requests for comment.)
Acronym has muddied the waters by repeatedly revising how it describes its relationship with Shadow. In January 2019, Acronym’s founder, Tara McGowan, tweeted that her organization had “acquired Groundbase, the best CRM + SMS tool on the political market, along with their incredible team led by @gjniemira + are launching Shadow, a new tech company to build smarter infrastructure for campaigns.” It also appears that McGowan was at some point operationally involved with Shadow: She invited interested parties to direct message her about the company’s “roadmap.”
Then, as the debacle unfolded, Acronym put out a statement running from the flaming wreckage. “Acronym is an investor in several for-profit companies across the progressive media and technology sectors,” the company said. “One of those independent, for-profit companies is Shadow, Inc, which has other private investors.” Sometime between last night at 2:34 a.m. eastern time, when I took a screenshot, and this morning, Acronym changed the language on its website from saying that it had “launched Shadow” to saying that it “invested in Shadow.”
Things happen with campaign technology. People are building fast with shoestring budgets. The apps don’t get enough testing. The volunteers don’t get enough training. “There was never any training on how to use the app or real-time getting the users in a room and seeing if they could log in,” says Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “A lot of people were only getting the ability to download in the last couple of days.” Bagniewski also says that it wasn’t just the reporting app that failed. Much of the technology that the state party rolled out did not work correctly, he says, noting a glitchy online-accessibility request form.
Democrats had a famous flameout with software called Houdini in 2008. Mitt Romney’s campaign had similar problems with tech it called Orca. “We had time. We had resources,” Harper Reed, who ran the technology team for Barack Obama in 2012, told me at the time. “We had done what we thought would work, and it still could have broken. Something could have happened.”
But how the decision was made to select Shadow, what the Iowa Democratic Party asked for, and what the company delivered all merit scrutiny. The biggest question is: Why and how did an unproven company end up building this one-off caucus app, which seems entirely distinct from its primary work?
That’s one reason clarifying the relationship between Shadow and Acronym is important. McGowan’s husband, Michael Halle, was Hillary Clinton’s lead organizer in Iowa, and has deep links to the state-party infrastructure. For those upset by the caucus situation—particularly Bernie Sanders supporters who have long had beef with the Democratic hierarchy—the fact that Halle is now a Buttigieg adviser won’t do anything to tamp down their anger. Ben Halle, Michael’s brother, is Buttigieg’s Iowa communications director, and made waves tweeting out caucus results sheets that had an as-yet-unexplained PIN written on them. (I’ve reached out to Michael Halle for comment and will update the piece if I hear back.)
Before the caucus mess, the Iowa Democratic Party had kept the app under tight wraps, refusing to disclose any details about it. Now the only way it can restore trust in the integrity of the process will be to come clean about how it settled on this app developer.
The problem with conspiracy theories, though, is that they assume high levels of coordination and competence. Look around and that seems far-fetched.
Jeremy Bird, a star field director with the Obama campaign, has noted that the problems with the caucus reporting went far beyond the app itself. People were downloading the app on the day of the caucus itself, not far in advance. “That is a training/planning/organizational problem,” Bird tweeted. “Should have had multiple dry runs & zero people should have been downloading anything on caucus night.”
As is often the case, the technology that gets deployed doesn’t solve problems. It reveals them.