Developer of Faulty Iowa Caucus App Was Entrenched in Democratic Establishment

The final results of Monday’s Democratic Iowa caucuses remain unknown, with 71% of precincts reporting the final tallies of the first 2020 presidential contest. Senator Bernie Sanders is leading in the popular vote, while former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a narrow lead of 26.8% of precincts — the state delegate equivalent traditionally used to determine the winner — followed by Sanders with 25.2%. Sanders won the popular vote in both the first and second rounds of voting, followed by Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Former Vice President Joe Biden placed fourth, followed by Senator Amy Klobuchar. It is unclear when full results will be released and how the reporting problems will impact the Democratic race. Democratic officials cited problems with a newly created app built by a firm called Shadow that was supposed to help precincts report results. The Democratic Party in Nevada was also planning to use the app during its upcoming caucuses but abandoned that plan on Tuesday. We speak with Lee Fang, a reporter with The Intercept. His new piece is titled “New Details Show How Deeply Iowa Caucus App Developer Was Embedded in Democratic Establishment.”

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin the show in Iowa, where the final results of Monday’s Democratic caucus remain unknown. With 71% of precincts reporting, Senator Bernie Sanders is leading in the popular vote, while former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a narrow lead in state delegates — the number traditionally used to determine the winner. Sanders won the popular vote in both the first and second round of voting, followed by Buttigieg and then Senator Elizabeth Warren. Former Vice President Joe Biden placed fourth, followed by Senator Amy Klobuchar. Meanwhile, Buttigieg currently has 26.8% of delegate equivalents, followed by Bernie Sanders with 25.2%. But again, about a quarter of the vote still remains to be counted.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s unclear when full results will be released and how the reporting SNAFU will impact the Democratic race. On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned in Milford, New Hampshire, ahead of Tuesday’s first primary.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I’m very proud to tell you that last night in Iowa we received more votes on the first and second round than any other candidate. Now, that is — that is with 62% of the vote. And for some reason in Iowa they’re having a little bit of trouble counting votes. But I am confident that here in New Hampshire, I know they’ll be able to count your votes on election night. And when you count those votes, I look forward to winning here in New Hampshire.

AMY GOODMAN: Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg celebrated the early Iowa results during a campaign stop in Laconia, New Hampshire.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So, we don’t know all of the numbers, but we know this much: A campaign that started a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition, no money, just a big idea, a campaign that some said should have no business even making this attempt, has taken its place at the front of this race to replace the current president with a better vision for the future.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During a press conference Tuesday, Troy Price, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, apologized for the crisis.

TROY PRICE: The reporting of the results and circumstances surrounding the 2020 Iowa Democratic Party caucuses were unacceptable. As chair of the party, I apologize deeply for this. Last night, we were faced with multiple reporting challenges and decided, out of an abundance of caution, to protect the integrity of the Iowa caucuses and their results by taking the necessary steps to review and confirm the data.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic officials cited problems with a newly created app built by a firm called Shadow that was supposed to help precincts report results. The Democratic Party in Nevada, which was also planning to use the app during its upcoming caucus later in February, abandoned that plan Tuesday.

We’re joined now by reporter Lee Fang of The Intercept. His new piece is headlined “New Details Show How Deeply Iowa Caucus App Developer Was Embedded in Democratic Establishment.”

Lee, lay it out for us. What happened in Iowa?

LEE FANG: Amy, thank you so much for having me.

I mean, there’s no way around this. The delay in reporting the Iowa caucus results is a catastrophe. We’re two days out from the caucus. We still don’t see the full results. This is a dark day for, small D, democracy and a very bad omen for, capital D, the Democratic Party.

What appears to have happened is that in a short period of time, over a couple months, this product, this app, was secretly developed, deployed to the Iowa Democratic Party. It was not fully tested. The Iowa Democratic Party and campaign officials who were supposed to deploy this technology did not properly train volunteers and other officials who were running these caucuses. There were problems downloading the app, logging into the app. There were inconsistencies in reporting the data from the app. So that explains part of the delay. And, you know, we were one of the first to report the identity of this firm that developed this app for the Democratic Party, but answers are still trickling out why there were so many problems, why there was so much incompetence in terms of deploying this, and why it was rushed and why this only came together in a few months before the caucus.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Lee, anyone who has dealt with the rollout of a new software or program at any institution or workplace knows that you’ve got to test it out well before you actually put it — make it go live. And so, it’s astounding that this Troy Price is still the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. He should have resigned at the same time that he made this announcement. But I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about who was behind it. Who was behind it? And how did they get the contract?

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the shadows behind the Shadow?

LEE FANG: Well, it’s an interesting name for a company. But just to give you some of the quick history here, after the 2016 election, there was a lot of discussion about the Trump campaign besting the Hillary Clinton campaign on digital outreach, on digital advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms. So a number of mostly Hillary Clinton campaign alumni formed a for-profit company and a suite, a group called ACRONYM/PACRONYM. That’s a suite of both a super PAC and a dark money group. These individuals raised tens of millions of dollars, largely from big Democratic donors, folks on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood. And they promised a robust response to the Trump agenda, to face Trump in 2020.

Last year, in January 2019, they acquired this company Groundbase. They renamed it Shadow. It’s fully affiliated with this ACRONYM/PACRONYM group. And they had a very small staff. But as we understand — we talked to a number of individuals in the Democratic Party and other officials close to this firm — they used their leverage with high-level Democratic donors, with Democratic establishment types, to quickly secure this contract with the Nevada Democratic Party and the Iowa Democratic Party to deploy this app. They had a very small number of developers working on this app in secret. And as you mentioned, the Nevada Democratic Party has now canceled their plans to use this app.

The Iowa Democratic Party released very little information about this app. We’ve heard reports that folks were told about the app even on the very day of the caucus. They had no idea how to use it, how to report the system. And there were serious bugs in the app. It would shut off while the caucus was being run. So, a plethora of problems. But this was created by a relatively small group of Democratic insiders, former campaign staff, again, to Hillary Clinton.

There has been also a little bit of talk about conflict of interest. There’s no discussion — there’s no evidence so far that this app was hacked or there was any of those type of cybersecurity problems. That’s still being evaluated, but there’s no evidence of that. But there is some question about the appearance of conflict of interest. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has paid over $40,000 to this company, Shadow. Joe Biden’s campaign has worked a little bit with this company. But for a company that is expected to be a neutral arbiter, to be literally developing the app to tabulate the votes, I think it’s important to have a neutral, objective entity developing this, not a company that’s only working with a few of the campaigns and not the others.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lee, what about this whole issue of, I guess you’d call it, a techno-arrogance, creating an app for a process that had a perfectly fine way of counting in the past? You get the results, you get on the phone, and you call the central headquarters, and you give them the results. This whole idea of technology can solve every problem and produce faster results, so that the media can more quickly tell the American people what happened, this is — isn’t this another warning sign of this arrogance of the technological community?

LEE FANG: I think that’s fair to say. I mean, look in the last 10 years, some of the biggest scandals in the business community. We have Juicero, the juice company that overpromised and underdelivered. We have Theranos, this blood testing company, that was a multibillion-dollar failure based on lies and, you know, just a very solid pitch to investors, but without the underlying technology. I think a lot of folks are looking for quick fixes. And there is this ideology that technology alone can solve all of our problems.

You know, I don’t want to condemn everyone involved in this. We’re still getting answers. But it’s very clear, from what we know, there was this pitch to high-level Democratic donors that this company, these individuals could deliver a powerful platform in a short amount of time. And the kind of most basic questions weren’t asked, and the product simply didn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who Tara McGowan is.

LEE FANG: Tara is the founder of ACRONYM and PACRONYM. That’s this umbrella group that owns or invested in Shadow, which made the app. She has helped raise a lot of money. She’s married to a Pete Buttigieg senior campaign staffer. You know, from all the profiles I’ve read —

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Halle. Michael Halle.

LEE FANG: Michael Halle, correct. You know, over the last years, there was a lot of profiles written of her, a lot of quotes. And, you know, I think, as far as I understand, she has promised a robust Democratic response to Trump’s advantage in digital media. That’s all well and good. But from just talking to different Democratic operatives and others who are close to this group, it appears that her group had not an objective focus just on Trump, but some close relationships with just a few of the campaigns. And, you know, I don’t know the future here. She has — her company distanced themselves from Shadow, saying they’re merely an investor. But as we reported yesterday, they’re deeply embedded with her group. The app developer shares offices with her company in Denver. They share resources, share staff. This is part of her company.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lee Fang, if you could talk about a few things? Why did the Iowa Democratic Party insist the name of the app should be kept secret? County or, whatever you call them in Iowa, precinct leaders, in the days before, were saying they were having lots of trouble. I mean, there was no full-scale testing, but some people tried and could not make this app work. And, of course, the backup was the phone system, what it used to be. You just call up. But it was so poorly staffed that people waited on line for hours and then more often hung up on. All these issues. And finally, one other question: Trump’s cybersecurity group within Homeland Security said they offered to test the app, and the Democrats said no.

LEE FANG: Well, look, I don’t have all the answers to this. There’s been a lot of reporting on the interactions between the app and the party. I expect in the next few days there’s going to be a lot more answers trickling out. Why this was not better vetted is still not clear. We do know that the Bernie Sanders campaign expected these types of problems and actually trained and created their own kind of digital platform to report the results on their own, expecting this type of failure. So, you know, at least some of these insiders, some of the presidential campaigns were aware of some potential problems. But why there was so much trust in this Democratic consulting firm that had just launched a few years ago, this company that just launched one year ago, that had a small developer team, and why there was so much secrecy really isn’t clear yet.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break right now. Lee Fang, we want to ask you to stay with us as we shift gears and talk about what happened last night: the State of the Union address, or you might call it the “State of Disunion.” Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept. We’re going to link to your most recent piece. It’s headlined “New Details Show How Deeply Iowa Caucus App Developer Was Embedded in Democratic Establishment.” This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.