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10
February 2020

Doing e-voting differently: learning from Iowa’s mistakes

Techno-sceptics will have been watching the news with particular interest this week. Unfortunately, when voting goes wrong, it goes really wrong, as the Iowa caucus results have demonstrated. This incident, described as a “systemwide disaster”, is likely to give e-voting critics ammunition for years to come. But what happened, exactly? And how can similar disasters be averted in the future?


The Iowa caucus app disaster - what went wrong with the vote?


First, a clarification - the Iowa caucus went wrong as a result of technology, but technically, it was not an e-vote. Democrats had to be physically present in order to vote, voting in person at churches, schools and libraries. Precincts would then enter the results of the vote into a new app, designed by the Washington DC based company Shadow Inc. 


Despite the initial excitement about using this innovative new app, there were problems from the beginning. Some caucus chairs had difficulty downloading the app, while others had problems once they got to the second round. Chair Tina Weber was unable to enter the number of supporters for Andrew Yang: “I ended up with more people than there were actual people there." Chairs ended up calling the phone hotline instead, and overloading the lines. Some exasperated organizers reported being on hold for up to 90 minute as they attempted to report the results.


Consequently, there was a significant delay in reporting the caucus results. “A systemwide disaster”, according to Derek Eadon, a former Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) chairman, or “an unmitigated disaster”, in the words of Donald Trump.


In the aftermath of the fiasco, Troy Price, the IDP chairman, made the following statement:


"As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. 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. This issue was identified and fixed."


Learning from Iowa’s mistakes


These were the key issues with the IDP’s use of the app for the caucus results:


  • Faulty technology. Essentially, the problems in Iowa were a result of a coding issue with Shadow Inc’s app. The glitches were later resolved, but not soon enough.
  • Insufficient advance testing. The app simply wasn’t ready to be used on such a wide scale, and caucus organizers didn’t have the opportunity to try it out beforehand. Apparently precinct chairs were only allowed to download the app immediately before the caucuses, to minimize the potential risk of interference.


While things may have gone seriously wrong - and with embarrassing results - it’s worth pointing out that there’s no evidence of hacking or security breaches. The world can learn from Iowa’s mistakes and avoid similar situations in the future.


We should also keep in mind that some countries are already using e-voting successfully, and have been doing so for years. Estonians have been using a secure online system to vote in elections since 2005, in what Forbes calls “a powerful glimpse of the coming future from the most advanced digital government on the planet”. E-voting has proven effective and reliable, when it’s done correctly.


The future of e-voting: how can we do things differently?


Voting shouldn’t be chaotic. domino.vote makes things simpler. Here’s how:


  1. Verifying identity. Digital ID is just one way to vote with domino.vote. The app allows poll organizers to onboard voters using tokens, P2P, digital ID or KYC. Freedom of choice means less hassle for organizers.
  2. Better security and transparency. domino.vote uses blockchain technology, which can’t be hacked. The results are transparent for everyone involved - both organizers and voters.
  3. Convenience for voters. Iowa voters had to be physically present in order to vote, and this is obviously still the norm for most polls. But voters who use domino.vote can download the app and vote directly from their personal phone. Just as e-banking has made life easier for customers, e-voting is clearly much more convenient for voters.
  4. Instant delivery of auditable results. The delayed results in Iowa led to stress, confusion and humiliation. Traditional voting requires time-consuming audits. Blockchain, on the other hand, is an enabler of instant, auditable results for everyone.


While Iowa has shown that there’s still work to be done - and above all, better preparation - a few initial glitches are inevitable when implementing new technology. Advances and improvements are taking place at a remarkable rate, and it’s just a matter of time before e-voting becomes the new normal.


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