ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
Here’s the takeaway from the Iowa fiasco: Beware of caucuses run by political parties. But don’t panic about the integrity of most primaries and the general election, which are run by state and county election administrators.
As Tuesday morning wore on without results from Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, the long-awaited first test of the strength of President Donald Trump’s would-be challengers, both public officials and enraged commentators stoked fears that Iowa was a harbinger of chaos for the rest of the 2020 campaign. Some said it raises alarms about the broader condition of election security and the reliability of computer systems that record, tally and publish the votes. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale even suggested on Twitter Monday, without evidence, that the process was “rigged.”
Get Our Top Investigations
Subscribe to the Big Story newsletter.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
But there’s a marked difference between the Iowa caucuses and the upcoming primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the 14 state primaries on Super Tuesday. The Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses, much as its counterparts in Nevada, Wyoming and several territories will do in the next few months. Party officials have less training and experience in administering the vote than do state and local election administrators who oversee most of the primaries.
Reflecting such concerns, the Democratic nominating process includes fewer caucuses this year than it did in 2016. The Democratic National Committee has called for using government-run primaries rather than party-run caucuses.
“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” said Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections — you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, whose office will oversee the state’s primary in April, said, “The Iowa caucus is an excellent reminder of why important elections should be run by trained, skilled and experienced state and local election administrators, not political parties.” Connecticut’s results undergo a post-election audit, and all votes there are on paper.
“Connecticut’s voters should be confident that they can trust the results of our elections,” she said.
In retrospect, Iowa’s Democratic Party made one mistake after another. It introduced a new app, widely reported to have been made by a company called Shadow Inc., without sufficient testing, training of precinct captains or transparency. At the same time, it made reporting requirements more complex, so that the 1,600 Democratic volunteers who manage individual precincts were required to provide three times as many data points as in past caucuses on a brand new app many had never been trained to use. (There were also many more candidates this year, further multiplying the amount of information to be reported.) Party officials didn’t hire enough people to take reports by phone in case the system failed. And they managed expectations poorly, assuring the public that results would be published faster than ever before.
“These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told CBS on Monday morning, while shrugging off concerns about the possibility of technical problems. “We’re ready.”
A presidential preference card used this year in the Iowa Democratic Party caucus in Fort Madison. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
This is not the first time that administrative problems have plagued the Iowa caucuses. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses shortly after 1:30 a.m. by eight votes over Rick Santorum. Two weeks later, a recount showed Santorum had actually won. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign declared victory after 2:30 a.m., even though official counting was not completed until that afternoon.
This year, the brand-new technology, lack of training and overconfidence by the state party amounted to a perfect storm. Government officials said they became aware of problems in the late afternoon, when precinct chairs began to report problems logging into the app. Many gave up on the app and began calling results in — as they’d done in past elections — but the reduced number of staff meant wait times so long that precinct leaders went home before they could report the results.
“Everyone was having the same problem,” said one Des Moines official who declined to be named. “Early on, it was obvious there were going to be problems.”
The receptionist at a WeWork office building in Washington, D.C., where Shadow Inc. listed its office in campaign finance filings, told a ProPublica reporter Tuesday that the company had recently moved out. Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira did not respond to a text message seeking comment Tuesday, and the voicemail box on his cellphone was full. An email to ACRONYM — an affiliated company — went unreturned.
ProPublica is relaunching its collaborative project for a third time to cover voting during this crucial election year. We’re recruiting newsroom partners.
One reason that caucus results are difficult to count is because they have multiple tallies. If a candidate doesn’t get 15% of the vote the first time, his or her supporters can switch to a rival. Delegates are apportioned by a mathematical formula. Now, the party is going through the painstaking process of verifying three datasets: the first expression of preference, the realignment and the overall delegate numbers. Verifying each number from each precinct takes several minutes, and the process must be repeated for more than 1,600 precincts. Because the Democratic Party did take the precaution of backing up counts on paper ballots, the final results should be verifiable. State party and federal officials have expressed confidence that the outcome will be accurate and trustworthy.
In a two-minute call just after 1 a.m. with the media, Price said the party was “validating every piece of data we have within that paper trail” and would “report results with full confidence.”
“We have said all along: We had backups in place for exactly this reason,” he said.
In a statement, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said he was “glad to hear [the Iowa Democratic Party has ] a paper trail for their votes, just as we use paper ballots in all official elections in the state of Iowa.”
“I support IDP while they take their time and conduct checks and balances to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the votes,” he said.
Records show the state’s Democratic Party paid $60,000 to Shadow Inc. in two installments in November and December. The app was introduced with the intent of speeding up reporting. While local and national media began asking about the app weeks ago, the party was largely silent about its mechanics and said little about testing or training. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, said that the Iowa Democratic Party had declined to allow DHS to conduct vulnerability testing on the app, though he said DHS saw no signs of malicious activity. The party has put out a statement that it has confirmed there were no intrusions and that the problems were the result of a “coding issue in the reporting system.”
The confusion in Iowa does raise concerns about the rest of 2020’s caucuses, as well as states — such as Hawaii and Alaska — where parties run primaries. The Nevada State Democratic Party, which paid Shadow Inc. $58,000 in August for “technology services,” will hold its caucuses on Feb. 22. The state party did not return a call for comment about the payment or whether it is using Shadow to report returns.
Experts said that using little-tested apps can raise the risk of security breaches because hackers could take advantage of an app’s poor computer coding. Some criticized the secrecy that shrouded the app itself.
“For critical software, I always look for documented, third-party security validation and transparency into the testing process the vendor used,” said Chris Wysopal, the chief technology officer at security firm Veracode and a prominent computer security expert. “It is a big, red flag if there is secrecy about the development process used to create and test an app.”
Election observers said one lesson of Iowa is that accuracy and clarity should be valued over speed. “It’s not about election integrity — the results will be verified with paper — it’s about satisfying our need to know immediately who won,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “When we balance out what’s more important, speed or accuracy, it’s not even a close call. We should be expecting accuracy and adjusting our expectations in regards to speed.”
(Gallatin County, Mont.) Rescuers with Gallatin County Search & Rescue in West Yellowstone assisted a skier who was injured in an incident near West Yellowstone yesterday.
At 3:15 p.m. on Saturday December 21, 2109, a 50-year-old Idaho women fell and sustained a shoulder injury while cross-country skiing on the Rendezvous Ski trail, about two miles south of West Yellowstone. Volunteers from Gallatin County Sheriff's Search and Rescue were able to quickly respond to the woman’s exact location because she had a charged cell phone and was able to call 911, providing an accurate location for the rescue personnel.
Emergency responders met her near the scene of the incident on snowmobiles and a tracked ATV. She appeared to have a broken collar bone. The woman was loaded onto the ATV and transported off the trail system to a waiting ambulance from the Hebgen Basin Fire Department.
By Eric Dietrich on Dec 19, 2019 02:38 pm
At a cramped meeting before the Montana Public Service Commission in Helena Dec. 9, a crowd of climate activists radiated suspicion as a bearded economist flipped through a slide deck.
Ben Fitch-Fleischmann, an energy planner for Montana’s largest power company, NorthWestern Energy, was explaining a 300-page plan that analyzes the utility’s options for supplying Montanans with reliable, affordable electricity over the next two decades. While other Pacific Northwest utilities are planning to shut down coal plants, he said, if NorthWestern is going to keep Montana’s lights on without overcharging ratepayers, it needs more fuel-burning power generation — not less.
The activists, convinced that NorthWestern is dragging its heels as other utilities divest from fossil fuels, were there to disagree. Toting signs from a pre-meeting rally in the PSC parking lot, they argued NorthWestern has to get serious about pivoting to cleaner sources — and soon — if the state and world are going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
At the front of the room, Montana’s utility commission presided over what was officially a listening session — and unofficially a flash point in a sprawling, highly technical debate over Montana’s energy future.
“I know that if you’re concerned about climate change, you don’t want to hear that gas is the cheapest way to provide energy into the future,” Fitch-Fleischmann told the skeptical crowd. But the reality, he said, is that NorthWestern owns less generating capacity than most of its peers, and so buys more market power, making it vulnerable to a regional power supply crunch as utilities decommission coal plants. His analysis, he added, indicates gas-fueled power plants are likely the best way to fill the gap.
“The key result here is we’re short on capacity today, and the region is increasingly short on capacity,” he said.
“They have no imagination. This is a sham,” said Don Harris of Clancy, one of 40-plus attendees to take a turn at the microphone to criticize NorthWestern’s plan.
The next morning, NorthWestern, which serves 369,000 Montana customers, announced plans to expand its ownership in the Colstrip coal power plant. Pending regulatory approval from the PSC, the company will purchase an additional 25% stake in Colstrip Unit 4 from Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy for $1, adding to its existing 30% share. In its announcement, NorthWestern officials compared the cost of operating the additional Colstrip generation, an estimated $15 million a year, to the $240 million cost of building equivalent natural gas capacity.
Puget Sound, faced with a Washington state law requiring the utility to eliminate coal generation from its portfolio by 2025, has touted the deal as a major step toward that goal.
“This is what our customers have been asking for,” executive David Mills said in a release.
NorthWestern’s critics would say they’re asking for the same thing, but the company argues that, given its capacity shortage, the Colstrip deal will help keep Montana electricity reliable as the company transitions toward cleaner energy sources. In announcing the deal, the company pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its generating portfolio to 90 percent below 2010 levels by 2045.
NorthWestern’s energy supply plan, which looks forward two decades and is updated every few years, is intended to serve as a roadmap as the company weighs decisions like the Colstrip purchase, keeping the public, and PSC regulators, apprised of its big-picture strategy.
Energy planner Ben Fitch-Fleischmann presents NorthWestern’s 2019 Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan to the Public Service Commission during a public hearing in Helena on Dec. 9, 2019.
Per Montana law, regulated utilities like NorthWestern are required to “provide adequate and reliable electricity supply service at the lowest long-term total cost.”
The NorthWestern supply plan is reviewed by the utility commission, which will give the company feedback, but won’t explicitly endorse or reject the plan with a formal vote. Commissioners will, however, ultimately vote on specific supply proposals from NorthWestern, like the Colstrip acquisition.
That regulatory power makes the PSC, where all five seats are Republican-held, the pivot point in Montana’s energy politics — the place where elected officials, agency staff, utility representatives, and interested citizens converge to hash out the policy that will drive the state’s energy future.
Dec. 17, 2019
“Prior to Treatment Court, their lives revolved around drugs, alcohol, and jail. But this year, with the support of the Treatment Court team, our participants are clean and sober. They are employed, and they have stable residences. And they are free to experience the joy of the holidays with their friends and family,” he said.
At the Christmas celebration, the 18 current participants will receive gifts and treats provided by Belgrade Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 12112, Friends of Treatment Court (a group that gives financial support to the program), as well as other citizens of Gallatin County.
Participants receive treatment for chemical dependency and mental health issues. Among a number of things, participants are required to attend addictions counseling, mental health therapy and support groups, as well as submit to frequent drug and alcohol testing, report weekly to a case manager and perform community service.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Gallatin County commissioners for their continued support of the Treatment Court,” he said. “Their emotional and financial support is greatly appreciated.”
Judge John Brown, Gallatin County District Court
Steve Ette, Director of Court Services
Eric Kitzmiller, Chief Deputy with Gallatin County Attorney’s Office
Kirsten Mull-Core, Attorney
Dr. Jim Murphey, Psychologist
Vicki Deboer, Clinical Supervisor with Alcohol and Drug Services of Gallatin County
Jared Poole, Probation and Parole Officer for Montana Department of Corrections
Kelley Parker-Wathne, Treatment Court Coordinator
Dec. 2, 2019
(Gallatin County, Mont.) On November 30, 2019 at 3:45 pm, Gallatin County Dispatch received a call for an overdue hunter. The hunter, a 47-year-old local man, had planned on meeting up with another hunter but didn’t show up. Attempts to contact the hunter by phone were unsuccessful. Based on the falling temperatures and the rugged terrain, Gallatin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue was called out to conduct a search for the hunter. When deputies arrived on scene, the reporting party had left her truck to look for the overdue hunter. SAR volunteers, including a search dog, quickly located the reporting party and brought her back to the truck.
The search was in the area of Headwaters State Park and the Trident cement plant, along the train tracks. Just before 7 pm, Montana Rail Link notified dispatch that a train engineer had spotted a man near the tracks at the bottom of the Clarkston Hill. Deputies responded and located the overdue hunter. The man was in good spirits and was given a ride to his residence to meet with the reporting party.
When you are in the backcountry, be prepared to stay out overnight should the conditions worsen. If you report a missing person, please stay with your vehicle so that search parties don't have to look for multiple people.
Page 1 of 102