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February 7, 2020

Handler in Lawfare: Election Security After Iowa

By Atlantic Council

The Iowa caucus debacle is an illustration of election security failure in action. Inconsistencies in data, caused in part by an apparent coding error in a new smartphone app used for reporting results, delayed announcement of the caucus results—which in turn led to a media frenzy and drove conspiracy theories. The Democratic National Committee has now called for a recanvass in areas where irregularities were reported.

The lesson to be learned from this disaster is not merely one about the perils of smartphones in voting. It’s a vivid illustration of how public reaction to a mishap can be worse than the mishap itself.

The technical issues in Iowa weren’t all that severe, and while manual tabulation errors appear to have aggravated the accounting process, there’s no evidence to suggest an attack or electoral interference––we just had to wait longer than expected to find out what the results were. Set against the range of possible threats to election security and integrity, this was a pretty minor one. And yet the Iowa debacle showcased how unhinged conspiracies can inflict damage on democratic institutions that’s just as severe as more direct electoral manipulation—along with the risk posed by overblown electoral outrage. To the extent that Iowa was a dry run for more pernicious election security issues that might arise in the general election, just about everyone failed the test.

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