An app screwed up Iowa’s caucuses. Could the same happen in New York?

How will technology impact voting in New York?
How will technology impact voting in New York?
Barbara Kalbfleisch
How will technology impact voting in New York?

An app screwed up Iowa’s caucuses. Could the same happen in New York?

New York doesn’t use an app, but its voting technology has had its own problems in the past.
February 4, 2020

New York’s presidential primary election is still two months away, but on Monday night, over 1,000 miles from New York, chaos reigned during the first night of Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Instead of getting results rolling in the late evening, state Democratic Party officials melted down, announcing that due to “inconsistencies” in reporting, the party could not yet declare a victor on Monday. As of late Tuesday afternoon, Iowa Democrats had yet to announce a winner.

Early reports suggest that the culprit of delays is not foreign election interference, but a smartphone app used by Iowa Democratic officials to report results. Instead of precinct chairs calling in results to state party officials from each of the state’s counties, as is usually done, reporting was supposed to happen over a new smartphone app commissioned by the state party to tally and report results. But in its first real test, a host of issues was reported with the app: it was only put together in the past two months, precinct workers weren’t properly trained on how to use or download it, and coding issues may have resulted in only partial reporting of data. 

Innovation can make the election process more efficient and accessible, but as the Iowa debacle demonstrated on Monday night, technology fails when it’s not held to rigorous testing standards or when people aren’t trained to use it. New York may not rely on an app like Iowa’s to report its own election results, but Monday night’s fiasco is still a cautionary tale for the state (and country) as its increasingly electronic election system – including computerized voting machines and pollbooks – takes shape.

City & State answered a few of the most important questions about what New York can learn from Iowa’s fiasco.

Could something like what happened in Iowa happen in New York?

The short answer: no. It appears that the central issue in Iowa was the app that precinct chairs used to report to Iowa Democratic officials. The Iowa caucus process is fundamentally different from New York elections. While the political parties are in charge of caucuses, New York’s primary and general elections are facilitated by the state and local boards of election – bipartisan bodies that are bound by New York election law and regulations. Technology used in New York’s elections – like computerized voting machines – require approval by the state Board of Elections, using criteria set out in law. 

Still, just like in the Iowa caucuses, each board of elections in New York has to report its results to the state Board of Elections in some way. John Conklin, spokesman for the state BOE, said that the system used for reporting has been in place for years – unlike the Iowa caucus app introduced months ago. “The individual county boards report their election results to us through a dedicated virtual private network,” Conklin told City & State, referring to VPNs, which allow users to securely share data across public or shared networks. “It's encrypted, it's something that's been in place for years and we use it at every election. It's well-tested.”

A longer answer, however, could be yes: introducing new forms of technologies always presents the possibility of unforeseen flaws. But Conklin said that New York has no plans to introduce any brand new technologies ahead of the April primary election or November general election that haven’t been used at least once before. “The newest equipment that we've been using would be the e-poll books that were used last fall in the general election, specifically for the early voting period before Election Day,” Conklin said, referring to electronic poll books, which are digital voter rolls that were approved for use in New York last year. He added that at local boards where the e-poll books are being used, personnel have been trained on how to use them. 

So New York doesn’t have any reason to worry about its voting technology?

Well, not exactly. Counties across the state can choose which state BOE-approved voting machines to use, but the primary method prompts voters to fill out a paper ballot, and then scan it using one of these machines. In New York City’s 2018 elections, those scanners ran into issues with processing two-page paper ballots that were damp because of humidity and rain. Essentially, New York City had a series of problematic paper jams on its hands. The city Board of Elections’ executive director Michael Ryan later testified that it was the perforated paper ballots – and not tech issues with the scanners themselves – at fault. 

And then there’s the little issue of hacking. After the widespread election interference seen in 2016, it’s not unreasonable for any county or state Board of Elections to be extra vigilant for security flaws in its voting systems. And while Conklin said that electronic poll books – the latest tech addition to New York’s election system – rolled out smoothly during early voting last fall, there may be more innovations to come that have caused some to raise concerns about cybersecurity. 

The state BOE is in the process of testing a new touch-screen voting machine from one of New York’s largest election systems vendors, Elections Systems & Software. Good government groups like Common Cause New York, however, have raised issues with the ExpressVote XL machine, saying the touch-screen device could present functionality and security issues. In other states where these machines have been used, there have been issues with malfunctioning touch screens and undercounted votes. “If you talk to a lot of cybersecurity experts, the supposition is there's no such thing as a safe and secure election if you introduce any kind of a technology, so the conversation then becomes risk mitigation,” Sarah Goff, deputy director at Common Cause New York said on Tuesday. “The risk mitigation that most folks agree on is what we currently have in place in New York City,” Goff said, adding that New York’s current system of voter-marked paper ballots recorded using a optical scanner is the “gold standard.”

ES&S defended its ExpressVote XL machine in response to questions raised by City & State about the machines’ reliability last month. “The ExpressVote XL has been through hundreds of thousands of hours of testing, including millions of ballots, and is certified by the Federal Election Assistance Commission,” ES&S spokeswoman Katina Granger wrote.

The ExpressVote XL isn’t Common Cause’s only issue with ES&S. The group recently called for a New York City Conflicts of Interest Board investigation into Ryan, the New York City BOE’s executive director over his “problematic relationship” with the company. Ryan last year pushed for the adoption of the ExpressVote XL, and has sat on the company’s National Customer Advisory Board. A spokeswoman for the city BOE declined to comment on that matter.

Conklin confirmed that testing of the ExpressVote XL machine is still ongoing, adding that the various technologies used in New York’s elections – primarily voting machines and e-poll books – are subject to approval by the state BOE, with checks on functionality and security. New York’s voting machines are not connected to any networks, attached to the internet or wirelessly accessible. “All of the scanners are tested before each election and after each election to make sure that they're working properly and that there has been no interference with them,” Conklin said. And while e-poll books are initially networked to download voter registration rolls, they’re then cut off from any network during voting.

How are New York’s poll workers trained to use the e-poll books, electronic voting machines and other technologies they interact with?

At least part of the issue with Iowa’s caucus app on Monday seemed to be with the fact that party workers at various precincts hadn’t been adequately trained to use the app. Conklin said that isn’t an issue in New York. Training is mandatory for poll workers at all local boards of election, and workers have to get certified by those boards. “They're trained on the machine technology – the scanners, the ballots. The e-poll books, they were all trained last fall and they'd get training again for any new inspectors,” Conklin said. 

Goff added that while poll workers have varied expertise based on how long they’ve been working elections in the state, relying on the same system for years breeds familiarity. “Because we've had these machines in place for the last 10 years, there is a certain degree of comfort level with the existing technology,” she said. “When the city introduced electronic poll books, I know they updated their training curriculum based on how early voting went. In November, it seemingly went off without a hitch.”

What can New York learn from Iowa’s mishap?

With details about what went wrong with the Iowa app still coming in, it’s hard to say exactly what New York can learn from Monday’s caucus disaster in Iowa. But the fundamental question will likely be how to introduce necessary technological innovation to elections while ensuring that the new technology is advanced enough to protect against cybersecurity concerns, and easy enough to use for poll workers and voters. 

While familiarity with old systems has its advantages, Goff acknowledged that there’s a tradeoff if those systems get out of date. “The infrastructure is aging,” Goff said. “The state and city will have to make a series of decisions about what the next class of voting machines look like for New York. I think that's in part why they're exploring something like the ExpressVote XL, which obviously is new. You know, just because it's new doesn't mean it works well, as we've learned in Iowa.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.