DES MOINES — They are a mix of campaign veterans and political rookies, deeply committed to a complex Democratic process that defies most accepted tenets of representative elections.
They number more than 1,600, and they are the volunteers whom the Iowa Democratic Party relies on to ensure that its time-honored process runs smoothly, and that the results are reported accurately. At a caucus site, clipboards in hand, the people known as precinct chairs help count participants, and are responsible for recording and submitting the results. Many are retirees and have run caucuses for years.
As part of a set of reforms following the 2016 election, the Iowa Democratic Party introduced an app intended to make reporting numbers on caucus night easier. But there was a problem with the much ballyhooed innovation: Most people didn’t use it.
According to more than a dozen Iowa Democratic Party officials, county chairmen and volunteers involved in running precincts, many precinct leaders ignored the party’s request that they download the app before caucus night or found the process of installing it too cumbersome.
Instead, as they had always done, they planned to call their precinct results in. But some found it took hours for any of the dozens of people at party headquarters in Des Moines to pick up the phone to receive the results. What followed was an epic collapse of the rickety system Iowa has relied on for decades to tabulate the results of a largely analog electoral contest.
“Most of my precinct chairs were a little older,” said Laura Hubka, the Democratic chairwoman in Northern Iowa’s Howard County. “They weren’t comfortable with it.”
John Grennan, 44, the Democratic chairman in Poweshiek County, said seven of the 10 people running precincts in his central Iowa county never downloaded the state party’s app to begin with, choosing instead to phone in results as they always had.
“We’re all so busy just trying to get volunteers,” Mr. Grennan said. “We told people if you can’t get the app to work just call it in. That’s what a lot of people had done historically.”
The phones didn’t work like they used to.
So many people chose to call their results in or called for help with the app that the state party’s hotline crumbled under the volume. Some precinct leaders found themselves on hold for hours, with others disconnected after long waits.
If precinct leaders did manage to report results by phone, the party then instructed them to send in a photograph of their caucus’s handwritten results page. Sarah Truitt, co-chair of the Clarke County Democrats, said she was told to use the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hours before the caucuses were to begin, the Iowa Democratic Party sent precinct leaders a brief email, containing “final app instructions.” One bullet point advised users that the “test pin you’ve been practicing with is no longer available.”
Another guided users on what to do “If the app stalls/freezes/locks up.”
“Close out of the app and log back in with your PIN,” the email read. “The app should save where you were. If it does not, please call in your results.”
Sarah Banks, a 39-year-old career adviser at Grinnell College, served as a caucus secretary, deputized by her precinct leader to record and submit results. She said she logged in to test the state party’s app Monday afternoon with no problem. But when it came time to report the actual tallies on Monday night, her app failed.
She spent the next four hours trying to phone in results.
“We had three of us call and we were all on hold,” Ms. Banks said. “When I was on hold for an hour, the phone disconnected.”
Shortly before 1 a.m., Ms. Banks said was finally able to log in and plug in her precinct’s totals.
Mr. Grennan, the Poweshiek County chairman, said state party officials hadn’t introduced the app to his volunteers until days before Monday’s caucus. Some precinct leaders in his county were unable to properly enter a security code to download and access the app, let alone submit results.
“A lot of people were like, ‘I’m getting a virus on my phone’ and just quit it,” he said.
Ms. Truitt said the process was confusing for those who tried. It involved inputting a series of forms and links and security codes. Only one person at a precinct could be authorized to submit results through the app.
“I have 75-year-old caucus chairs who are sitting here going, ‘I’m just going to call that in,’” she said. “This was too many new things to learn for a lot of people. Not everybody that goes to the caucus is a 20-year-old college kid.”
On caucus night, Mr. Grennan said the app repeatedly asked him to enter a security code, which he had written down in his caucus packet. After he’d logged in, the app kept kicking him off. And once he was able to enter his precinct’s results he never got a confirmation that they had been received.
There were scattered reports of the state party’s app functioning properly. Zach Wahls, a 28-year-old state senator from Coralville, ran a caucus in his hometown that he said went smoothly.
“When the caucus was over, I opened the app and entered the information and it was fine,” he said. “There were no challenges. I entered all the numbers and added the photo. It was fine.”
Yet for many Iowans, caucus night 2020 became the nightmare they had long dreaded: A national embarrassment that even Iowans now admit should lead to the end of their coveted place at the front of the presidential nominating calendar.
“We Iowans take this so seriously,” said Sue Body, a precinct secretary in Clarke County. “To get to this point and have the state look so bad — it just looks so poorly on the whole process. And really, everything worked except the very end.”
Trip Gabriel contributed reporting.