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Iowa’s Message for Other States

Be ready for everything to go wrong.

February 11, 2020

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Just when you thought the Iowa caucus debacle couldn’t get worse, it went full Murphy’s law. On Thursday, Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called for a full recanvass of the results. Immediately, the Iowa Democratic Party responded that it would do so if a campaign requested it.

As we all know now, the human and technical mistakes in Iowa were legion. Yet one overlooked fact in coverage of the meltdown is that the caucus was run by a state political party — not professional election officials. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons for all the other primaries and caucuses in the weeks ahead. 

Here are the four most important things election officials can do to keep the 2020 election cycle free, fair and secure.

Don’t roll out untested technology in a big election. As an election professional from Ohio recently told me, “Macy’s wouldn’t roll out new cash registers on Black Friday.”

There is a ton of new technology, from voting machines to electronic pollbooks, being employed in 2020. And for the most part, it is long overdue. For years, we have neglected our election infrastructure in the United States, with states using voting machines and registration databases with unnecessary security and reliability flaws.

The key, however, is to test out this technology in low-stakes, low-turnout elections throughout the year — a best practice that the Iowa Democratic Party ignored.

Have strong resiliency plans that can handle system-wide failures and are resistant to tampering. Even when technology is vetted, it can fail, and we must be ready for system-wide breakdowns. Officials in Iowa had backup plans for their ill-fated app — a phone line where precinct captains could call in results — but that preparation appeared inadequate. It might have been enough if the problems with the app only happened in a few precincts, not on such a wide scale. And it didn’t help that Trump supporters piled on, flooding the hotline with calls after learning the number.

While using apps to report results is rare — if it occurs anywhere else at all — there are plenty of other electoral systems that could malfunction. Let’s take the example of electronic pollbooks, which are used to check voters in on election day. They are used in 41 states plus the District of Columbia, but only 12 plus the District require polling places to have paper backups in the polling place in case they go down or are corrupted. This should be standard.

Similarly, election officials should be prepared for inaccuracies in voter-registration databases or machines that fail. In every polling place, they should have enough backup materials — such as emergency paper ballots and provisional ballots — for at least two to three hours of peak voting. 

Have paper backup records of every vote and check them. In many ways, the failure of the reporting app could have been much worse. It wasn’t hacked despite security vulnerabilities. No one was prevented from voting. And all votes were recorded on a piece of paper. That paper has been used to reconstruct totals, and it should allow the party to ensure accurate results in its recanvass if that becomes necessary.

It is true that there are now reports of inaccuracies and discrepancies in totals aggregated from the paper. That’s not hugely surprising. Humans make mistakes, particularly when they are rushed.

But assuming paper tallies and voters’ individual preference cards were saved, the transcription and calculation errors should be corrected by any recanvass, if not sooner. This is, in fact, the purpose of paper. Without it, accurate results would be impossible to obtain.

Fortunately, in most of the country, there are paper records of every vote. The use of paperless voting machines — which don’t produce a paper backup of votes, and which experts decry as an unnecessary security risk — has declined, going from nearly 30 million voters in 2016 to approximately 16 million this coming November. Indeed, every battleground state will have a paper backup. As in Iowa today, they all should be looking at that paper to confirm results. Far too many states, however, fail to do this.

Accuracy is more important than speed. Late results shouldn’t be treated as a disaster, as the media initially handled the reporting problems. Iowa officials didn’t help matters by releasing error-ridden partial results, which only further undermined confidence.

With the rise of vote-by-mail and provisional voting, election results during the primaries and in November are likely to come in after most of us have gone to bed, and possibly days later. That doesn’t mean the system failed.

The most pressing question the public should be asking after results start coming in is not how quickly can a winner be called but whether there are measures in place to ensure the accuracy of the vote.

We are fortunate that most professional election officials already know these lessons. But Iowa should still serve as a wake-up call. This year, our election systems will be strained as never before. Analysts are projecting a record turnout. Intelligence agencies are warning of cyberattacks against our election infrastructure. And disinformation is likely to run rampant.

Our best response to these challenges is to have enough backup supplies, so that if disaster strikes, Americans can still have confidence that their votes will be counted accurately. Most important, it means beefing up resiliency plans, auditing the paper record of all votes and reminding everyone of the virtue of patience.