The Iowa caucus is our first look at new security measures for the 2020 election cycle.
On Monday, Iowans will have a chance to vote for their preferred presidential candidate in the state’s caucus — our first indication of who will ultimately win the Democratic Party nomination. It will also be our first look at how states are upping their presidential election cybersecurity game since 2016, when Russia attempted to hack US voting machines — and which it is likely to attempt again this election cycle, and with four more years of experience.
But don’t worry, Iowa’s Democratic Party is instituting a revolutionary new tool that no computer hacker can possibly defeat: a 2,200-year-old technology called “paper.”
In the wake of the problematic punch-card ballots that might have decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, electronic voting machines were seen as a way to improve accuracy and make elections more accessible. But after years of issues with the machines and fears that they could be hacked — culminating in the 2016 presidential election — many states dialed back their march toward a paperless future, returning to paper voting machines and paper backups.
The Iowa caucus doesn’t rely on voting machines at all; rather, caucusgoers meet at various precincts across the state and (in the case of Democratic caucuses, that is — Republicans have a different system), literally, vote with their feet. They stand in different sections of the room depending on who their presidential nominee of choice is. It’s not the most scientific process, but, as the first presidential nominating contest in the country, the result gives the winning candidate momentum heading into presidential primary season. The Iowa caucus has predicted the correct Democratic nominee in 7 out of 10 contested caucuses since it began in 1972. It hasn’t gotten it wrong since 1992.
The Iowa Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee have instituted a few new measures this cycle that they say will increase security following allegations that Russia hacked into the 2016 election. But some experts believe even these measures are not enough to ward off a determined and skilled hacker.
One of the chief concerns is the app that Iowa’s caucus volunteers will be using to calculate and register their precincts’ votes, which will be installed on their personal smartphones. As we’ve seen, smartphones can get hacked even in the best of circumstances. If one of the richest men in the world can have his cellphone hacked, how secure is a caucus volunteer’s smartphone?
Linn County Auditor Joel Miller told the Des Moines Register that he’s hopeful about the app’s security, pointing out that people routinely use smartphones for important transactions.
“We use smartphone apps for banking every day,” he said. “Hopefully this is as robust and secure as the banking applications.”
That’s not particularly reassuring, as even the most robust banking software is easily defeated if the user has poor cyber hygiene.
Party leaders have been sparing with details about the app’s security measures, refusing even to reveal which company designed it (they say this in and of itself is a security measure). The New York Times reported that the app has been tested by security experts and the Department of Homeland Security. In 2016 — a simpler, more innocent time — both parties used a vote-counting app that was designed by Microsoft. Volunteers who do not wish to use the app or don’t have a smartphone can always call the results in through a hotline.
And, as an added measure of security and for the first time in caucus history, the Iowa Democratic Party is instituting a “paper trail,” giving caucusgoers a card on which they must write their preferred candidate’s name and their signature, to be collected by the caucus precinct. These will be used in the event of a recount. Laws requiring some kind of paper record for votes vary state to state, with only 13 not requiring them at all. Iowa, for the record, is one of 14 states that require paper ballots (this is a caucus, not an election, so the law does not apply in this case).
Russia’s most effective tool in influencing the 2016 elections was not hacking voting machines but a widespread disinformation campaign that largely played out on social media. It will almost certainly continue this strategy in 2020. Social media platforms say they are attuned to the threat and have instituted various measures they believe will prevent the anticipated misinformation onslaught. Their ability to identify and remove hoaxes from their platforms, however, remains spotty.
The Iowa caucus is a quirky process but a symbolically important one, both for who wins it and its ability to resist interference attempts from bad actors. A smartphone app hack wouldn’t be the end of the world — thanks to the new paper trail, it should be easy enough to get the correct tally anyway. The biggest damage would probably be the ominous tone it will set for the rest of election season, casting that much more doubt on the eventual vote.
Author: Sara Morrison