Government

Audit of botched Iowa Democratic caucuses largely blames national party

State-led review says national party insisted on late coding change

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price walks offstage Feb. 4 after speaking about the delay in Iowa caucus results in
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price walks offstage Feb. 4 after speaking about the delay in Iowa caucus results in Des Moines. Price later resigned over the debacle. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — A late computer coding change, made at the insistence of the national Democratic Party, led to technical problems and ultimately the meltdown of Iowa’s 2020 Democratic caucuses, an audit report released Saturday found.

The report, which is based on a review conducted by a trio of Iowa lawyers, says the Democratic National Committee insisted on a late change to an app meant to report results of the precinct caucuses throughout the state. That change caused technical issues on the Feb. 3 caucus night that fouled up reporting results from the crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls for weeks.

The report also says the DNC — by not delivering the program until August 2019 — made it difficult for the state party to adequately prepare for reporting the caucus results and have time to adequately train workers on how to use the program.

The technical malfunction prevented the Iowa Democratic Party from reporting results until after the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses — the next states in the winnowing process — already were over. The state party’s chairman at the time, Troy Price, quit over the debacle that gave the first-in-the-nation event a black eye.

“The DNC’s interjection was the catalyst for the resulting chaos in the boiler room and in the IDP’s attempts to manually collect and confirm caucus results by hand,” the report says. “If the DNC had not interjected itself into the results reporting process based on its erroneous data conversion, caucus night could conceivably have proceeded according to the IDP’s initial plan.”

Iowa Democrats had pledged to conduct a thorough review to determine what went wrong during the 2020 caucuses. The review was conducted by lawyers Nick Klinefeldt, Bonnie Campbell and David Yoshimura, and resulted in a 26-page report that was published Saturday after it was presented to the state party’s leadership.

The lawyers said they reviewed thousands of documents and conducted dozens of interviews with state and county party leaders, representatives from three presidential campaigns and a worker for the company that developed the results reporting program.

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The national Democratic Party declined to participate in the review, and did not state a reason for its refusal to participate, the lawyers said.

A DNC representative did not immediately respond Saturday to a request for comment.

The report affirms that the results reporting program was not hacked or otherwise compromised. It also identifies several problems in the state party’s caucus night command center, other issues that contributed to the delay in reporting results and a failure of the state party to establish projections for when the news media could expect results.

“There were (multiple) fingers to be pointed at different players,” Campbell said during a video news conference Saturday. “There’s that moment when the stars are not in alignment, and we experienced one of those.”

The report also makes a series of recommendations for how the state party could avoid similar missteps in the future. Those recommendations include setting a hard deadline for when all technology and software can be altered before the caucuses; taking complete ownership — in other words, blocking out the national party — of work with technology vendors, technology projects and results reporting systems; better preparing and integrating technology into its caucus-night command center; and managing expectations for the reporting of caucus results.

“It wasn’t our task to tell the party what to do with our report, but rather to review what happened caucus night,” Campbell said. “I think our party leaders will read the report and find new and better ways to avoid what happened last caucus night on the next caucus night. That will be up to the leaders of the Democratic Party.”

Iowa’s position as the leadoff state in the nation’s presidential nominating process is always under fire but this year’s issues in addition to other high-profile issues with the 2016 Democratic and 2012 Republican caucuses may have worsened the already shaky ground on which the Iowa caucuses stand.

Campbell said the review was not undertaken with the goal of preserving Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.

“Our mission, our purpose for being engaged was not to develop a plan to save the Iowa caucuses — you can call me another time for my opinion on that — but rather to understand what happened that went wrong,” Campbell said.

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“I really don’t know the future of the Iowa caucuses, and I don’t know that this report is going to alter that in any significant way at all. In fact I doubt that it does.”

According to the report, the DNC “in the last days or weeks leading up to the caucuses” demanded it have access to the data coming into the state party in real-time on caucus night. The national party wanted an ability to double-check the state’s data before allowing the state to publish results. A conversion tool was built into the program, and that conversion tool is what faltered on caucus night, preventing the state party from being able to report results.

When the state party finally did release results, they showed Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., with a minuscule lead over Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But the complicated system used by Iowa Democrats of counting results was so rife with questions that the Associated Press never declared a winner.

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