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Iowa Republicans will use an app to transmit caucus results. Sound familiar?

Four years ago, Doug Jones was driving a stack of papers to Des Moines.

A now-retired expert in voting technology at the University of Iowa, and a former Democratic caucus precinct leader, Jones had a bad feeling in 2020 when he found out a third party was building opaque software meant to transmit results from the local level to the state party in real time.

"The idea of security through obscurity is almost always a mistake," Jones told NPR at the time. "Drawing the blinds on the process leaves us, in the public, in a position where we can't even assess the competence of the people doing something on our behalf."

The rest is history. The reporting app was riddled with problems, and it took days of combing through hard-copy results like the ones Jones delivered before anyone had any idea who actually won Democrats' contest.

"I haven't come to expect high technical expertise from the management of our political parties," Jones said in an interview this month.

This year, it's Iowa's Republicans who will use a brand-new app, designed by an undisclosed third party, to transmit results from the precinct level to the state headquarters.

There are some critical differences between the two processes, and Republicans in the state say they've been preparing the technology for close to a year, but Jones still sees a disturbing similarity: a lack of transparency.

"We have no clue who developed the software, only the customer's assertion that it's someone good," Jones said. "Four years ago, we had that kind of assertion of quality from the Democrats."

Unlike in many states in which local and state officials oversee the presidential primary election, Iowa is among the states that has instead given the responsibility of administering, staffing and funding caucuses to the state parties themselves.

Democrats did away with their first-in-the-nation caucuses after the 2020 debacle, but Republicans are still opting to let the state party oversee their first nominating contest.

The Iowa Republican Party hosted a briefing for reporters this month to show how the vote-reporting application would work, but declined to provide NPR with any more details about who built or designed the software. Conspiracy theories about the system have also begun to circulate, according to narrative tracking from the University of Washington.

According to the party, local caucus leaders will use the app to transmit results to the state party, which will then verify there aren't any data entry anomalies, before publishing them to a public-facing website.

"We have completed extensive testing with multiple parties in anticipation of a wide variety of issues typical of high profile, high traffic events including load balancing and distributed computing challenges, malicious actors, DDOS attacks and others," said Kush Desai, the state party's communications director. "We will not be sharing other specifics ahead of time as to not compromise the system."

Importantly, the reporting software will only transmit unofficial results on caucus night. The state party will rely on paper submissions (verified by caucus-goers in the publicly viewable precincts) to tally the official results, so even if the app malfunctions or is hacked, that won't affect the official tally. The party will also operate a phone hotline for precinct leaders to call if they need to.

"They don't want an egg on their face like the Democrats had," said Joe Kiniry, chief scientist of the open-source election technology company Free & Fair. "But from a operational point of view, the caucuses are going to run whether the system works or not."

Another key difference between the Republicans' system and the failed one the Democrats used in 2020 is what the party is asking the software to do. In 2020, Democrats used a complicated formula for awarding delegates, which the app was supposed to help calculate. Republicans are just using the app to record vote totals.

That simplicity has Kiniry optimistic that the system will work Monday, but he's still troubled by the lack of information about who made it.

"The fact that they're not being transparent just leaves a bad taste in the mouths of people like myself," Kiniry said. "It's not a good sign in general for anything, but especially for any technology relevant to trustworthy elections."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.