Government Networks and Elections: Are You Ready?

Government Networks and Elections: Are You Ready?

For better or worse, this election cycle’s Democratic Party caucus in Iowa encapsulates what we might expect from future elections in America. While we can expect new technologies to play an increasingly large role, we also saw the danger of rushing them into action, as the night was thrown into chaos due to technical issues. In this article, we explore what went wrong in Iowa, what we can learn from it, and what else network operators must consider to make sure these critical civic events run smoothly, safely, and transparently.

The Iowa Lessons

The Iowa Democratic Party enlisted app developer Shadow to build a custom app to help caucus leaders report voting results more quickly. However, this decision backfired in very high-profile fashion due to one main reason: a lack of preparation.

The app itself was a large part of this problem. Shadow had less than two months to develop the app before the caucus. In most circumstances, this is not an outrageous timeline in the minimum-viable-product, “fail fast and often” world of software development. However, given the gravity of the real-world use case, it would’ve been prudent to take more time to work out the reporting glitches that ended up causing days of uncertainty. In particular, the lack of statewide testing left party leaders blind to the app’s submission shortcomings.

Furthermore, the caucus leaders were poorly trained on the app itself. While training was made available, it was not mandatory. As a result, on the night of the caucus, many of the volunteers who lead caucuses were unfamiliar with the functionality of the app. Some were unable to download the app, while  others were unable to log in. Out of frustration, many users decided not to use it at all, which caused unexpected delays for party organizers.

This failed exercise demonstrates two key steps any organizer or network operator must undertake before rolling out new technology (hardware or software):

  1. Give yourself enough time to comprehensively test your new proposed solution, as you might a component of your core network.
  2. Ensure everyone who will interact with the technology is sufficiently trained.

The Biggest Concern

The biggest electoral concern is shared by candidates, voters, and organizers: security.

Even before the spectre of international meddling was raised in the wake of the 2016 election, election security was a big cause of concern. In many jurisdictions, voting equipment is antiquated, prone to breaking down, and relatively easy to mechanically tamper with. This is especially true since most poll workers who oversee these machines are, again, volunteers with little technical knowledge of how the machines work. 

However, in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security designated the nation’s election systems as critical infrastructure, alongside dams, nuclear power plants, and other assets deemed vital to the nation’s wellbeing and security. This designation opens up more federal funding and resources for jurisdictions who need to upgrade their equipment.

This also paves the way for innovation and new technology to enter the election ecosystem, particularly in the form of “smarter,” network-enabled devices. However, without proper precautions, this added intelligence could even further compromise security: while current voting machines require an operative to tamper with them in person, a connected device could conceivably be hacked by a sophisticated attacker from anywhere in the world. To that end, it is important to consider network security holistically, as a critical component of your entire government network as you upgrade your critical infrastructure in the future.

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