Precinct captain Carl Voss, of Des Moines, Iowa, holds the Iowa...

Precinct captain Carl Voss, of Des Moines, Iowa, holds the Iowa Democratic Party's caucus reporting app on his iPhone Tuesday. Credit: AP/Charlie Neibergall

So the Iowa Democratc Party thought it'd pay someone to design an app to track its 2020 presidential caucus, one of the most archaic processes in the U.S. political system? 

In the Iowa caucuses, participants huddle together in the pre-arranged part of a gym, a school auditorium or a church hall where supporters of their fave candidates have been assigned huddling space. Then, if they can’t lure enough folks into their corner, they have to go huddle in the corner of another candidate who has attracted enough huddlers to qualify as a legitimate candidate in that precinct, of which there are about 1,700.

There is a charming old-timey “better days” aspect to the process, in that you are often being wheedled into your decision by neighbors whom you’ve come to know as trustworthy over the years. That’s certainly better than being wheedled by veiled Russian Facebook operatives falsely claiming Joe Biden is the executive treasurer of the Illuminati or posting “proof” that Amy Klobuchar invested $10,000 in a savage backroom labradoodle fighting ring. 

But these caucuses don’t seem like a very efficient way to pick a candidate. And they don’t seem to be a process crying out for a poorly designed tracking app, having run mostly fine for the Democratic Party without such technology since 1972.

Designing an app to track the corner-to-corner politicking of the Iowa caucuses is like designing a ride-hail app for horse-drawn buggies. It’s like designing a state-of-the-art inventory system to compile all the data from accounting firms that use only abacuses. It’s like designing a dating app for a traditional culture in which all marriages are compulsory unions arranged by parents. 

Imagine the text alerts! “Your parents have picked this young lady as your wife. If you approve, please swipe right and report for your wedding-day suit-fitting! If you disapprove, please swipe left and report for your wedding-day suit fitting!”

Worse, the Iowa Democratic caucus compiling app didn’t work. Now the conspiracy theories are piling up fast and furious, fed by the fact that the political tech company paid $63,000 to create the app, Shadow, is run by Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis, former campaign staffers for conspiracy-theory genie Hillary Clinton.

Admittedly, $63,000 is cheap, but why reinvent the wheel? Calling in results to headquarters worked. And if Iowa Dems absolutely had to go high tech, there are lots of technology companies with apps designed to let people sign in securely and express preferences.

Dating apps like Tinder could set up Democrats in Iowa with the candidate of their choice in minutes. They could post pics of candidates with little messages like “I’m Bernie and my turn-ons are world peace and socialism! Swipe right if you see anything you like.” 

And the dating apps aren’t the only option. Amazon knows what every American in possession of a credit card likes and wants, and unlike the Iowa Democratic caucuses, offers quick delivery. Amazon can also point shoppers to secondary preferences: “I’m sorry, the Democratic presidential race is currently out of Beto O’Rourke. Other customers interested in Beto O’Rourke often choose Pete Buttigieg.”

My iPhone tells Apple everything about me, and Google Maps and Waze keep track of everywhere I go. If the Iowa Democratic Party wants to know who its members support for the presidential nomination, it should ask Alexa. 

What’s most amazing, in this terrifying age of constant commercial surveillance, is that the Iowa Democratic Party bought the only app that can’t track our every move and preference. And in doing so, managed to crown a surprising winner of the Democratic caucus: President Donald Trump, in a landslide.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.


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