Opinion | Susan Knopf: Technology a blessing and a curse

Susan Knopf

Ever hear of Tara McGowan? She’s behind Acronym, a nonprofit progressive campaign group that invested in Shadow, the technology company that developed the app that failed in the Iowa caucus.

For the record, despite news reports to the contrary, Nevada Democrats say they will not be using the same app for their Feb. 22 caucus. Business Insider quoted Nevada Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II as saying, “Nevada Dems can confidently say that what happened in the Iowa caucus … will not happen in Nevada. … We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.” 

The Las Vegas Review-Journal conservative newspaper reported that Nevada Democrats originally had contracted with the same vendor. A source, identified as a state Democratic Executive Committee member who asked not to be identified, told the paper that it appeared the party would go old school and return to the paper and pencil method. Paper is the method most favored by election security experts.

Some say the Democratic National Committee pooh-poohed the idea of phone backup for the app used in Iowa. When the app failed, caucus reporters said they spent an hour or more waiting to report their caucus numbers.

My friend professor emeritus Steve Katz wrote, “How ridiculous! an app for just 1600 precinct reporters of caucus votes; the technological imperative strikes again!!” Technology is a serious tool for serious players. Probably not the sort of thing the Iowa Democratic Party ought to be selecting for a first-run trial in the first caucus of the presidential campaign season.

On “Fox and Friends,” the acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf claimed his department offered to vet the app for security issues and Democrats declined. The Iowa Democratic State Party Chair Troy Price said in a news conference Tuesday that he has “no knowledge of … that offer.”

No surprise, paper is more secure than electronic voting. In Iowa, the backup was paper. Price assured the public Tuesday that, “We know this data is accurate. We have a paper trail.” Yeah? How long can it take to count a few thousand votes? Not a good day for democracy nor Iowa Democrats.

Here in Colorado, we voted to hold our presidential primary on March 3. That vote will be tallied using our usual mailed paper ballots. We will have our county caucus March 7. Summit County Democratic Party Chair Patti McLaughlin recommends Democrats check in at 1 p.m. at the Summit County Middle School. The caucus begins promptly at 2 p.m., prescribed by state law. Republicans will meet at the Summit County Senior Center. Democrats will be selecting their Senate primary candidates, electing precinct committee officers and submitting names for election day judges. The caucuses end by 5 p.m., McLaughlin says, according to state law.

No question there are issues with caucuses. What if you are working at caucus time? Or have child care or eldercare responsibilities? What if you are out of town or deployed overseas? No question there is reduced access. But for anyone who has participated in this unique democratic process of chatting with neighbors about the candidates and the issues, it is unmatched in the opportunity to participate at the grassroots level. I would be saddened to lose such an opportunity. This fuels the argument to use technology to propel the process. Voters could participate in a caucus virtually by phone. But technology is fraught with security dangers.

The Trump administration is advancing a very good idea to address one looming technological security issue. This week the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is working with U.S. technology companies to “create advanced software for next generation 5G telecommunications networks.” Here’s the idea: develop common engineering standards to allow 5G software to run on nearly any hardware. That would reduce, if not cut out, reliance on Huawei.

That’s important because Chinese law requires Huawei to share anything and everything with its government, military and intelligence services. That means Europe, which is already highly dependent on Huawei, is in a security trap. The Chinese have them. We don’t want that.

The Iowa app failure has accomplished a couple good outcomes. It “may move Iowa out of being the first state to caucus. It’s really not demographically representative of the (Democratic) Party or the country,” McLaughlin said. It also may serve as a wake-up call to election officials: Old school often works more reliably than new-fangled.

Note from the author: Acronym, a progressive nonprofit founded in 2017, should not be confused with Acronym, a New York based for-profit marketing research/internet search firm.

Susan Knopf’s column “For the Record” publishes biweekly on Fridays in the Summit Daily News. Knopf lives in Silverthorne. She is a certified ski instructor and an award-winning journalist. Contact her at

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