Chaos in the Caucuses – Iowa Democrats’ Corn App A Real Bad Dud

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There is a quotation ascribed to Stalin – “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”

Now, I am rarely the sort of person to accuse the Democratic Party of being “Stalinist” [even their ‘relative’ left-wing candidates I would hardly work up the enthusiasm to laud “Socialist”] … but after what we have just seen in the Iowa Caucuses yesterday, the most famous son of the Caucasus seems to have put it best.

Like many burned-out politi-hacks, I had been paying somewhat idle attention to the inflow of results coming out of the Corn-Hole over the course of Tuesday afternoon [local NZ time], and had made a joking remark to an associate when unexpected delays began to set in quite early on that this must mean the Democrats had seen the same early results everybody else had on live news … featuring an insurgent Sanders well out in front, and a Biden seemingly lost somewhere out in the field of Corn Pops, and were frantically attempting to work out how to ‘massage’ the results to produce an ‘appropriate’ outcome.

It was noted that this would also presumably explain part of the reason they were being so seriously … not “Stalinist”, but, tight-lipped, secretive, stringently censorious about ‘leaks’ or early disclosure of results, as these’d undermine any later ability to just release “right” numbers – in exactly the same manner that the provision of exit-polling figures which don’t match up with e-voting ballots may suggest the latter has been tampered with.

I was joking … mostly … but it appears that reality liked my sense of humour.

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A little later that afternoon, news broke that the reason for the delay in results coming out was due to difficulties with the app built to feed these back to the party. The initial statements were that officials had had difficulty logging in to make use of it.

I again made a “joke”, suggesting it might be because some of these local chairs had realized that the app was rather similar to what had been alleged about the e-voting machines used in the US Presidential Election in 2004 – i.e. that they’d ‘mysteriously’ record votes for the “right” candidate, regardless of what you actually put in.

Several hours passed. Paint dried. Pete Buttigieg somehow declared victory (on 0% of the vote). Some results crawled in. Which seemed to put supposed-to-be-front-runner Biden somehow behind otherwise-also-ran Klobuchar. Eyebrows slightly raised.

And then, it happened.

Word came out of Iowa that the app had potentially been “hacked” … and, swiftly following in its wake, the allegation that it had been produced by people formerly affiliated with the Clinton campaign in 2016.

I nearly fell out of my chair. Surely we weren’t going to see the Democratic Party again allege that establishment Democrats weren’t doing well because of Russian hacking … of Iowa?

Well, as it happened, not quite – yet, anyway. There’s still time for this to all somehow lead back to Putin armed with an iPhone personally masterminding the corn-heist of the year.

The official statement was simply the rather terse statement that the results had been held back for “quality control” checking. I should have learned my lesson by now, but I again “joked” about this perhaps being because any result showing Sanders massively ahead of one of the Democrat Establishment approved choices would be deemed to be an error, hence “quality control” checking to produce a “correct version”, somehow, at the end of the night.

Matters got worse. Iowan Democratic Party chairs started telling media that the unspecified ‘issues’ we’d heard about earlier on in the evening, were to do with the app refusing to send proper numbers on down the chain to the Party HQ; and, when they’d resorted to the old-fashioned means and mechanisms of calling up HQ to manually report their results, they were being hung up on. Or facing spiraling delays. Or both.

We’re still not quite sure what actually went wrong with the app. Some Democratic officials were just saying that there were technical issues with accessing the app and actually getting it to send information; others, from higher up and more central, began speaking about “Inconsistencies” in the results that had come in via the app versus paper and photographic mechanisms of accounting (while seemingly denying a crash or accessibility issues); and others from outside the party began collating together material to support some … darker views altogether.

Now, I am something of a paranoid man from time to time; and I take it to the understandable ‘next level’ of also applying the sustained knife of critical scrutiny to my own thoughts of shadowy political conspiracies.

I think it’s important to acknowledge here that new tech does fail, and often quite spectacularly, upon its earlier outings (even though I’m not aware of any similar nor comparable issues with the Microsoft-developed app used in Iowa in 2016); and that overconfident early-adopters with considerable stakes in its success may not adequately plan forward for this, and persist with theoretically outmoded ‘old ways’ backups right ready to go on standby for when things do fall over like the proverbial brown paper bag in the thunderstorm. This is particularly the case, given that the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars which have gone into the purchasing, development, and rollout of the new-tech solution … will often have left the organization’s coffers rather sparsely furnished to actually maintain the usually more staffing-intensive previous-infrastructure (or some semi-skeleton crewed simulacrum thereof) that the new app was supposed to replace as a backup.

However, acknowledging that it’s possible for this sort of technological (and then backup system) failure to occur, does not mean leaving unacknowledged nor underacknowledged the rather massive optics effects which this can have.

And I don’t simply mean the fact that an appreciable proportion of American voters, for the next five minutes at any rate, presumably now don’t think the Democratic Party is capable of organizing itself out of that aforementioned thunder-struck proverbial paper bag. Especially when Trump (who appears to have ‘won’ the Iowa Democratic Caucus/Primary so far) was able to put out a release showing he’d just breezed to victory – with the implicit underlying contrast of “Chaos” on the one hand, and “Order”, on the other.

Leaving aside the more ‘conspiratorial’ looking stuff for the moment (we’ll return to that later), the fact is that what’s happened in Iowa this week (or, rather, not happened, and been diffused, occluded, eclipsed) has significant strategic import. In previous years, claiming victory (and, in light of Buttigieg”s gun-jumping antics, I should perhaps instead say confirming victory) in Iowa has been a great way to provide energy for a candidacy going forward. It can even do the unthinkable, and help trigger an “upset” – propelling an ‘outsider’ or ‘insurgent’ candidacy to start racing past a more middle-of-the-road “sensible” and “predicted to win” ‘establishment’ option. As happened back in 2008, when a young senator nobody’d ever heard of called Obama somehow managed to ‘hope and change’ his way past the ‘born for the role and spent more than half a century preparing’ Hillary Clinton.

Now, if you’re an increasingly nervous Democratic Establishment, who have already made abundantly clear that they kinda-sorta-actually blame Sanders for preventing President Hillary (almost more than they blame President Trump), by doing too well during the 2016 Primary season … the last thing you want to occur in 2020, is Sanders somehow managing to ‘pull an Obama’, and being populares-anointed The Frontrunner as the result of a good, solid win in Iowa. [As a point of interest, he came painfully close to winning the state during the 2016 season – being 0.25% behind Clinton for votes, in part because he lost six coin tosses used in cases of tie … because in America, it appears, they literally let money decide elections]

So while I’m not saying that the Democrats deliberately presided over an absolute fiasco in Iowa, which they triggered and then exacerbated as soon as they saw that Sanders was poised to win … I am saying that it’s pretty helpful for those Democrats who are opposed to Sanders, that instead of being able to claim a clear and unambiguous win that’d bolster his momentum going forward – he’s now left with the big news story, almost whatever the outcome there amidst the cornfields ultimately turns out to be, being about the flawed and possibly unreliable Results themselves. Not his place within them.

In a manner similar to how the gabion [a rock-filled wire-mesh cage placed on shorelines as a countermeasure to erosion] disrupts the force of the onrushing wave by dissipating it off up into the small stones, rather than letting it pound forth at the cliff face behind directly … so, too, will the sweeping spray of Sanders find itself diffused amidst all the swirling detritus that’s been distributed via this sudden storm.

Another way you could look at it, I suppose, would be observing the rapidly intensifying Bern, and then attempting to douse it with a smothering spurt of foam, drastically reducing its inflow of oxygen, even if only temporarily. Gives you time to rally other resources to do a more comprehensive job later on down the line, and tries to prevent it going into any further contests any bigger and Bern-ier than it already is. If nothing else, it gives you more time to work out how to spin the actual results coming out of Iowa, while everybody waits for the official count to be released (something which Sanders semi-pre-empted when his campaign responded to Buttigieg’s self-declared victory, by putting out partial-polling of about 40% of the state’s caucusing, which instead showed him in first place – and, to be fair, Buttigieg in a rather surprising second).

And while it’s one thing to observe that however it might have occurred, the debacle in Des Moines has been rather useful for those who find themselves arrayed against Sanders (again) … it’s quite another to assert that what’s happened with the app was, to quote the jargon “not a bug, but a feature”. That is to say, that the chaos of the Caucuses was something decidedly both less – and more – than “accidental”.

To be fair and sure, I am once again not stating that this is the case. Only that, given an array of the other data-points we have since become aware of, I can see how an array of people out there have already leapt to this conclusion.

Now partially, this is because it’s “deja vu all over again” for Sanders supporters. They either remember 2016 themselves, viscerally, personally … or they’ve heard about it – often in venomous and disparaging tones from Democrat establishment supporters who frequently portray the whole thing as a beat-up by a sore-loser (who ‘should’, by rights, have been an ‘also-ran’, or more likely a not-even-ran-at-all-coz-not-Democrat) which eventually culminated in the combination of Sour Grapes and “Russian Hacking” costing the world its Madam President.

But it’s also largely because of a lot of much more recent petty [and I do in some cases mean that in the sense other than ‘small’] political happenings. For one thing, there’s the curious fact that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has turned out to possess remarkably close ties to ACRONYM, the company which owns the app at the center of all of these circles in the corn. This goes beyond the tens of thousands of dollars Buttigieg’s campaign put into said company last year, to encompass what appears to be direct relationships between the Buttigieg campaign and ACRONYM’s leadership. By which I mean the CEO of ACRONYM, one Tara McGowan (who’d earlier expressed enthusiastic excitement about the Buttigieg candidacy right from the get-go in early 2019, and has continued to retweet a lot of #TeamPete recently) seems to be married to Buttigieg’s strategist, Michael Halle (who also describes himself, I note, as a “proud alum” of the Hillary Clinton campaign -a distinction which he shares with a number of the app developer’s engineers, as they themselves tell you). ACRONYM’s official position on all of this is that there should be no problem, because while they do(part)own the company that produced the app, there’s nothing to see here because “we [ACRONYM] have not provided any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party”, as they are “not a technology company”.

In fact, going off their official statement, they appear to be as surprised as anybody to hear that their ‘shadow’ company [as in, seriously, the company’s called “SHADOW”] has anything to do with the Iowa contest – “We are reading confirmed reports of Shadow’s work with the Iowa Democratic Party on Twitter, and we, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information” … which is a bit of a contrast from the release they put out a little more than a year ago (coincidentally, five days before Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee for the Democratic nomination for President), wherein ACRONYM stated they were “launching Shadow, a company focused on building the technology infrastructure needed to enable Democrats to run better, more efficient campaigns.”

Or, for those of you playing at home – it is technically true that ACRONYM (who “are not a technology company”) “have not provided any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party” … because the company they set up and own which has as its explicit purpose as stated by ACRONYM themselves “building the technology infrastructure needed to enable Democrats to run better, more efficient campaigns”, has done so for them. Presumably with their parent company’s awareness, given ACRONYM’s acquisition of the ‘Groundbase’ asset that ‘Shadow’ was in their own words set up to “operate” for just such a purpose.

Also, while we are on the subject of all of this, it frankly astounds me that somebody would set up not just one, but two linked corporate entities designed to operate in the murky world immediately adjacent to the cloak-and-dagger fueled Corridors of Power … with names like “ACRONYM” and “Shadow”. Nothing suspicious-looking, or wannabe-Bond-villain about that, at all. Although you could, potentially, be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the actual description Shadow offers for its own raison d’etre – “When a light is shining, Shadows are a constant companion. We see ourselves as building a long-term, side-by-side “Shadow” of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large.”

Hell, with a pitch like that, you could just about call them the tech-end of the “Deep Party” (like the “Deep State” … only, er, “Fun”. Or something.).

Whether or not any actual, provable impropriety has occurred, you put all of this together – the eager young(ish) Clinton-campaign stalwarts doing the developing and operations, the senior Buttigieg strategist married CEO, the suspiciously specific denials that are worded in just the right way that they’re not technically untrue, the significant financial contribution of the Buttigieg campaign to ‘Shadow’ [specifically, the for the purpose of “software rights and subscriptions”] (although to be fair, the Biden campaign had also put in a much smaller amount for messaging services, late last year), as well as the fact that Buttigieg himself was straight-out-the-gate taking advantage of the situation caused by the app to pre-emptively announce his own victory while nobody could contest it …

… well, it doesn’t look like the most “transparent” political transpiration, in either sense of the term (Terry Pratchett once sagely observed that in Politics, “transparency” has two meanings – like a window, as in you can see right through it … or like the air, as in you can’t see it at all). Instead, the whole thing’s kinda occluded. Almost as if there were some sort of “Shadow” looming large across our visionary skein.

That “Shadow”, of course, isn’t just one sub-standard tech-outfit (no matter how earnest it’s been about providing “a permanent advantage for progressive campaigns and causes through technology.”); nor, for that matter, is it the absolute greaseberg of hairy ‘rough optics’ connections tying said app and its developers/owners back to Buttigieg, or even to Hillary Clinton herself; all laid out on company or personal websites and twitter profiles for any and all to see. (And speaking of Clinton, despite her own endeavours to continue to interpose herself into the 2020 Primary race with snide remarks about the purported improbability of Sanders actually managing to work productively with anyone, etc., she’s in some ways only a symptomatic shade at this point of the (pen)umbral umbrage of which I am speaking)

What it is, is a pervasive and sweeping sense of malaise. That “we’ve been down this road before”, as applies potentially dubious [or, if you like, “Dubya-ous”] electoral processes, and internal party struggles to let a more genuine voice be heard. Partially, that means we spend all our time with events like these with one eye over our shoulder – insistently overlaying the terrain of these previous hopes-frustrations-and-defeats, the topography of yesteryear, upon the trajectories of the still(to-be)born political present. But it also, and more worryingly, entails a steady dwindling of hope at prospects for the future – a gradual drawing down of not just ‘activist’, but ‘mass’ enthusiasm for the concept that Change [possibly accompanied by Hope] is even possible.

A previous contender for the Democratic Presidential Nomination – Dennis Kucinich – attempted to galvanize and inspire his supporters by boldly stating “You’re looking at a guy who believes he can beat a rigged game.” And it is certainly true that, should you happen to flip even a two-headed coin enough times, it shall eventually land upon its side (and therefore ‘neither’ substantively indistinguishable ‘head’ – a third option; the subjunctive, the ‘mood of the possible’).

But what we have seen this past day and a half, it reminds me – as events amidst American politics so often do – of the wise words of Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser:

“The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them we are missing.”

And I shall explain what I mean by invoking that here. You see, the great big Existential Threat ™ to the Democratic Party (other than, it might be convincingly argued, the Democratic Party – “we have met the enemy, and he is us”, indeed), is not the Republican Party; nor, despite occasional breathless assertions to the contrary, is it “Russian Hacking”, or something else of similar external-conspiratorial nature – real or rhetorical and otherwise.

Rather, for the Democratic Party Establishment, the genuine threat which keeps them up at night, is that they are, in a sense, ‘obsolete’, outmoded, no longer with “it” (if, in fact, many of them ever really were) – and are soon to be replaced by these uprising insurgent idealist types who, shock horror, actually believe in things, and seem to have not-immediately-biddable-away personal values and ethics and principles. More bizarrely, some of them aren’t young ‘children’s crusade’ enlistees, but older people and military veterans who should know better, dangnabbit!

Various ‘Establishment’ Dems know this, and they are frightened of it. As well they should be. For they are also painfully, patently (a)ware(y), that they have been steadily losing ground over the past few years to them. And it is now a somewhat open question as to whether their own breed shall die out of natural causes whilst still enjoying the baubles of office and simulacra-relevancy …. or by being turfed out via determined interior-to-party psephological pushes upon an escalating quotient of fronts.

So as to what we may, potentially, be ‘missing’ in the insta-reaction to the “Shadow” of democracy over up there in Iowa … in amidst all the interpretation-knife-fighting about whether Bernie was robbed, whether Buttigieg (or his team) have just semi-hacked an election, possibly with Clintonite assistance (or just been guilty of some bad optics so unbelievably dire that people would struggle to take you seriously if you pitched it all as a genuine conspiracy for film), whether the Democrats are taking advantage of the ‘breather’ provided by the contratemps to work out how to spin supposed front-runner Biden just about off the map entirely, or any of the rest of it …

What we are missing, is how it – all of it – makes the young(ish) (more rarely, the ‘young-at-heart’ – for whom disappointment on a nation-sweeping, country-stealing, war-starting scale is rarely anything truly new) people, activists, and voters, who’d otherwise be joining up and fueling the ongoing not-that-radical transformation of the Democratic Party, and American politics in general, how it makes them feel when they find themselves confronted with what looks so anguished-sigh inducingly like yet another instance of what one of my associates described as the Democrats “Gettin Riggy With It”.

And the answer to that is, probably, disenchanted, disenfranchised, disillusioned, and monumentally disinterested all up.

If you can’t fight City(/Tammany) Hall, then perhaps the only ‘winning move’ is not to play. And what does that mean in practice? Probably one of two things. Either less people getting interested and involved in unpredictable and less controllable ‘groundwell’ ‘populist’ political crusades like that of Sanders in 2016 – or, people not necessarily becoming less interested and involved in general and in principle, but switching away from attempts to work ‘inside the tent’ of the Democrats, to setting up their own ‘third party’ vehicle or vehicles. The record for longevity and electoral success for which, in modern American politics, is not exactly great; meaning that if some third party manages to draw off a swathe of sorts the Democratic Establishment probably didn’t want inside their own demesnes anyway, and then leads to some of these troublesome representatives failing to attain re-election, while also tying up others who might make trouble internally, somewhere *elsewhere* … it’s a net win.

And, for an added venomous sweetener, if the thing that actually acts as the active catalyst for all of this is some newfangled tech-app-thing, of exactly the kind and the sort that Millennials had been bragging about bringing into the political arena and using to turn the whole place upside down and make it all suddenly “progressive” with … well, that’s some kind of contrapasso bonus par excellence.

Now, it’s certainly possible that I’m putting rather more thought into all of this than many of the people actually making decisions for the Democratic Party have; and leaving far too much room for cogent, calculating, clear-minded intent in what might actually just be some of the worst optics since the U.S.S. Maine (accidentally) blew itself to smithereens at exactly the moment that the Americans were looking for an aggressive Spanish military action with which to justify the starting of an imperialist near-global war.

But that almost doesn’t matter. The likely prospective outcome’s not going  to be all that different if these types of shenanigans just seem to keep happening all the way from now to the Convention later this year. Which they almost certainly will, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to at least half the candidates still left with a (semi-)serious shot in the running.

There’s a lot of uncertainty out there in politiworld (where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter) at the moment, about some semi-serious things  … including, at time of writing, who actually won the Iowa Democratic Primary.

One thing there’s not so much uncertainty about, though:

Faith in the Democratic Party didn’t kill Itself.

16 COMMENTS

  1. An electoral system dosnt just break like that first time. It had to have been broken and corrupted to the core at least once before.

    • The fix has to be in. We are being told the most technologically sophisticated country in the world can’t produce a counting app? A bright highschool kid could code this, complete with simple UI and some sort of two factor vote authentication, with consideration for database and network capacity. The bigger question for me is why in hell would you vote for anyone else but Bernie, possibly the only hope for the world.

      • In one caucus that I saw Sanders got a little over 100 popular votes and Pete got 42 or 45 popular votes but the chairmen of that particular caucus took it to a coin toss anyway and the delegates ended up 2 each to Sanders and Pete. So that’s how Pete Buttiegeg has an 18-10 delegate lead over Sanders which is exactly the same way Hillary rigged the 2016 primaries against Sanders. Literally coin tossing there way to political oblivion. If Sanders dosnt won these primaries then the Democratic membership is just going to Mutiny. Sanders needs 1991 Delegates to take the Democratic nomination and the battle ground states, Michigan and Virginia and over the next 5 days will be worth a thousand delegates. So Sanders have to over win to nullify the effects of Super Delagtes.

      • No this isn’t a technical failure it’s designed to do that. It’s never, ever the machines fault. It is always 100% the operators fault. As Jody points out the app that cost millions was literally designed to fail under certain circumstances. And there is no white washing that. Zip nada. And Iv heard people claim, I heard good people Calvin that it’s just incompetence and I’m like no it isn’t. It’s by design.

        • I just heard on the Young Turks that the phone number for the backup system in the event of app failure may have been posted online. This phone line was then pranked by trolls overloading the system. Debacle. That coin toss though, how can chance be a substitute for freewill? There has to be a better way.

          • There’s a video floating around of a young about 18-22 year cheating Sanders out of a caucus delegate with a coin toss. The DNC isn’t even trying to cover there tracks. They’re openly cheating Sanders. There’s no doubt. It’s very sad watching people deny it.

  2. America has the bloody audacity to question Venezuelan or Bolivian voting practices, or blame losing the presidency to a buffoon on the Russians? AND they vote for Alfred E. Neuman over Bernie Saunders? Wtf is wrong with (some of) these people?

  3. A timely reminder for all those electronic (on line) voting proponents: it’s all puppies and kittens till something goes wrong (or someone wants to nefarious). May I suggest checking Brent Welder’s primary last year . He was a rather impressive Justice Democrat (like Alexander Ocasio Corteze) and was ahead of the more establishment Sharice Davids when there was a technical issue : when the system came back up Sharice was well ahead & ended up winning. Only safe way: paper ballot with a paper trail.

  4. How hard can the Americans make such a beautifully simple process as a democratic vote? No wonder 44% didn’t even vote at all in 2016.

    • As hard as it needs to be to ensure the status quo remains unchanged. “Give the people an actual voice… and then listen and act on it?! Nooooooo!”

  5. Nice work, Chris. I am
    calling President Putin now on my red phone to suggest we bring you in.

    Would you prefer to be paid in gold, rubles, or Ukrainian wives?

  6. Nekminit, the crooks want a recount! Why dont they just accept the popular vote and make that the determining factor for picking the winner? Oh, that’ll be Bernie too!

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