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NY Times, Feb. 5, 2020
Faulty Iowa App Was Part of Push to Restore Democrats’ Digital Edge
By Matthew Rosenberg, Nick Corasaniti, Sheera Frenkel and Nicole
The faulty smartphone app behind the chaotic aftermath of Iowa’s
Democratic caucuses was the work of a little-known company called Shadow
Inc. that was founded by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful
presidential campaign, and whose previous work was marked by a string of
failures, including a near bankruptcy.
The app grew out of a broader push by Democrats, backed by tens of
millions of dollars in donor money, to match the Republicans’ prowess in
digital advertising and organizing after the 2016 election. Much of the
energy and investment have gone into enterprises that are intended to
both boost the Democrats’ digital game and turn a profit, like Shadow.
Yet instead of showcasing how far the Democrats had come since the 2016
defeat, the disarray surrounding the Iowa caucuses raised new questions
about how the party hopes to compete in 2020 with the Trump campaign, a
digital juggernaut that is churning out ads and raising record sums of
“It’s the exact opposite of the Trump team approach — bring the
engineers in house, figure out exactly what we need, we build it, we
test it, we own it,” said David Goldstein, chief executive of Tovo Labs,
a progressive digital consulting firm.
Given less than two months to build an app for reporting caucus results
to the Iowa Democratic Party, Shadow produced technology that proved
difficult to download and use and ended up delivering incorrect tallies.
Iowa’s Democrats blamed a “coding issue” in the app, and the party said
it would resort to a time-consuming manual tally based on information
called in by precinct chairs or pictures sent on their smartphones — the
same ones on which they could not make the app work.
With the wait on results dragging into Tuesday evening, many in the
party began dissecting what turned the Democrats’ first contest of the
2020 election into a chaotic display, starting with Shadow, and its main
backer, Acronym, a progressive nonprofit that is focused on helping
Democrats regain their digital edge.
Shadow, in a tweet, said, “We sincerely regret the delay in the
reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the
uncertainty it has caused.” But the company offered no explanation for
what went wrong, though Democratic officials said that data had been
incorrectly transmitted from the app to a central database, and that
many users had been unable to follow the complicated process for
installing the app on their phones.
The fallout spread quickly on Tuesday. Nevada, which like Iowa holds
caucuses instead of a primary election, said it was abandoning plans to
use Shadow’s app. The Biden campaign, which had hired Shadow to help it
reach voters, announced that it had cut ties with the company last year.
Founded in 2017, Acronym quickly became a darling of the Democratic
donor class with its talk of restoring the digital advantage that the
party had enjoyed under President Barack Obama, and that it was seen to
have lost in Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign. David Plouffe, the
well-connected former Obama campaign manager, joined Acronym’s board.
Its founder, Tara McGowan, a former journalist, was the subject of
glowing profiles, one of which called her “the Democrats’ Most Dangerous
For a time, Acronym appeared poised to deliver on its promise. Late last
year, it unveiled a plan to spend $75 million on digital advertising to
counter President Trump’s early spending advantage in key battleground
Months earlier, it also quietly invested millions of dollars in a nearly
bankrupt company called Groundbase, a tech firm that renamed itself
Shadow soon after.
The firm had been founded by a pair of Clinton campaign veterans, Gerard
Niemira and Krista Davis, with an initial investment from another
progressive nonprofit, Higher Ground Labs. But its main technology, a
texting platform designed for campaigns, failed to catch on as users
complained that it was slow and cumbersome.
The failure left the firm perilously underfunded, and it was close to
shutting down when Acronym stepped in with an infusion of cash, and a
plan to refocus Groundbase specifically on developing mobile technology
The new money brought new projects. There was an email app and a program
called Lightrail, which was being built to help the Democratic Party
centralize its data.
There were also new clients. According to the most recent campaign
filing reports, Shadow earned roughly $150,000 last year working for the
Nevada and Wisconsin state Democratic parties and three presidential
campaigns — those of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Pete
Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Senator Kirsten
Gillibrand of New York, who dropped out of the race in August.
Shadow’s work for the Biden campaign involved the texting technology and
digital advertising consulting aimed at small dollar donors, said
campaign staffers. But the texting program was particularly problematic,
they said, pointing to potential security concerns.
An aide to Mr. Biden, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid
alienating other Democrats, said the campaign had used Shadow to text
voters ahead of its campaign kickoff in Philadelphia last year. But the
technology “did not pass our cybersecurity checklist.”
Still, when Iowa Democrats, on the advice of the national party,
abandoned plans to have caucus results called in by phone because of
security concerns and instead build an app, they chose Shadow from
multiple bidders, according to a state party official. The party said
that Shadow’s application was vetted for cybersecurity and technical
considerations, including by third-party experts.
State records show the Iowa Democrats paid the firm $63,183 in two
Shadow was put into a race that engineers at the most well-resourced
tech giants, like Google, said could not be won. There was simply not
enough time to build the app, test it widely to work out major bugs and
then train its users.
Shadow was also handicapped by its own lack of coding know-how,
according to people familiar with the company. Few of its employees had
worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively
Two people who work for Acronym, speaking on the condition of anonymity
because they did not want to risk their jobs, acknowledged that the app
had problems. It was so rushed, they said, that there was no time to get
it approved by the Apple store. Had it been, it might have proved far
easier for users to install.
Instead, the app had to be downloaded by bypassing a phone’s security
settings, a complicated process for anyone unfamiliar with the
intricacies of mobile operating systems, and especially hard for many of
the older, less tech-savvy caucus chairs in Iowa.
The app also had to be installed using two-factor authentication and PIN
passcodes. The information was included on worksheets given to
volunteers at the Iowa precincts tallying the votes, but it added
another layer of complication that appeared to hinder people.
In the end, only one-quarter of the 1,700 precinct chairs successfully
downloaded and installed the app, according to a Democratic consultant
who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid losing work. Many who
resorted to calling in the results found that there were too few
operators to handle the calls.
Some also took pictures of the worksheets they had been given — the PINs
fully visible — and tweeted them out in frustration. Had the app worked,
the information might have given trolls or hackers a chance to download
the program and tamper with it.
In the lead-up to the caucuses, officials at the state party and the
D.N.C. made an effort to keep Shadow’s involvement a secret, asking with
no apparent irony that even the name of the company be withheld from the
public, arguing that hackers could not attack what they did not know
existed. But the relative obscurity meant that the app would not be
subject to independent testing for bugs.
By Tuesday morning, it appeared that some of the people involved with
developing and launching the app were trying to hide their connection to
Shadow. At least one employee had removed the company from her LinkedIn
profile, and two others had hidden their photos and personal details online.
Acronym, for its part, removed a mention of its role in developing the
app from its website. In its place, the Acronym website now states that
the organization “invested” in Shadow.
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