Those of us who tuned in on Monday night to see the results from the Iowa caucuses were surprised to learn that a poorly-designed smartphone app prevented proper compilation of the results. We were even more surprised Tuesday morning when there still were no official results. 

This led to conflicting reports on who really won, and all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Michael R. Nelson
Mike Nelson is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment’s Technology and International Affairs Program, which studies the implications of emerging technologies, including digital technologies, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
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More seriously, it caused some pundits to argue that our voting systems will never be secure or reliable. That is simply wrong.

Rather, we should learn from the mistakes made in Iowa and work to make the American election process more robust and trusted. Among the lessons to be learned:

Accurate problem identification. Understandably, much of the discussion about the malicious hacking of elections focuses on cyberattacks on voting machines. But, in Iowa’s caucuses, no voting machines were used. Instead caucus-goers showed up and expressed their preferences publicly. The problems were with the reporting of vote tallies, with the way the app malfunctions were communicated, and with crazy, false reporting that was tweeted and retweeted across the internet.

Paper works. For more than five years, election security experts have been saying “You must have paper copies of the results” and have been pushing states to replace old electronic voting machines that did not produce an auditable paper record. Fortunately, in Iowa, each caucus organizer has a hard copy of the results. There is no evidence that those records have been lost or altered. The final tally is simply delayed, not “hacked” or illegitimate.

Transparency works. Because the caucus was open and everyone could see who voted and how, each candidate (and lots of reporters) were there to verify the vote.

Have a back-up plan. The biggest problem in Iowa was that caucus organizers who could not use the app did not have an alternate way to submit their result; the telephone hotline was overwhelmed. Election organizers, particularly those testing new, internet-based voting methods, need to have contingency plans.

Testing matters. The app used in Iowa’s caucuses reportedly was developed in a couple months and was not thoroughly tested — certainly not in real-world conditions. In contrast, on Feb. 11, an election will be held in the Seattle area where more than a million citizens will have the option of using an online app that has been tested with eight different pilot programs. In Iowa, a few tests were done and revealed serious problems, but the schedule was too tight to address those.

Communication matters. Because there was a paper record from each caucus, and because many eyes were watching the process, the final results of the Iowa caucuses were sorted out. But in the confusion Monday night, a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt was spread — not only across the U.S. but around the world. The delay caused by a simple software glitch was used to cast doubt on the entire Iowa caucus process, just as the problems with the initial website for ObamaCare in 2013 not only frustrated users but cast doubt on the competence of the people running the whole program. Clearer, real-time communications on Monday night — and constant reminders that the caucus results were recorded and eventually would be tallied — could have countered the worst of the conspiracy theories and the accusations that some candidates were trying to “steal” victory.

Better ways to identify and counter lies are needed. While the votes from Iowa will be counted (and the tallies rechecked), the misperception that the primary process is flawed will persist. It might even discourage some potential voters in other states from participating in later primaries. Governments and corporations need to help citizens deal with rumors and disinformation on the web, as well as lies and conspiracy theories spread through various media. A comprehensive, international approach is needed to promote best practices — and to identify troubling new trends — so that better-informed citizens can make smarter decisions, and so that elections will be perceived by the public as being well-run and trusted.

This article was originally published in The Hill.