An app created by a tech company started by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign is being blamed for the unprecedented chaos during the Democratic Iowa caucuses on Monday, when delays and “inconsistencies” in reporting forced the night to conclude with no real winner.
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The Iowa Democratic Party paid Shadow, a tech firm that last year joined with ACRONYM, a liberal nonprofit group focused on digital messaging, more than $63,000 during two separate payments in November and December last year for “website development,” according to state campaign finance records. According to the Huffington Post, citing a source with knowledge, those payments were for the app the caucus site leaders were supposed to use to upload the results at their locales.
Gerard Niemira, who served as Clinton’s director of product during her 2016 campaign, is currently the CEO of Shadow. He previously worked as both chief technology officer and chief operating officer at ACRONYM for a little over a year, according to his LinkedIn. In September of last year, David Plouffe, who helped lead both of former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, joined ACRONYM’s board of directors. Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, denied involvement in the app after rumors began circulating that he played a role in the app’s development.
Plouffe also denied knowledge about Shadow during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday night.
“My understanding, I just texted the CEO, is ACRONYM is an investor in Shadow, I guess Shadow has its own board of directors,” Plouffe said. “In my relationship with ACRONYM, which has been going on for a few months, I have no knowledge of Shadow.”
On its website, Shadow describes itself as “campaign and technology veterans who have built and implemented technology at Hillary for America, Obama for America, Google, Kiva, Apple, the AFL-CIO, and the DNC.”
ACRONYM spokesperson Kyle Tharp distanced the company from Shadow and the Iowa debacle. He also noted that ACRONYM is not the sole investor behind Shadow, which has other private investors. It’s unclear who those other investors are.
“ACRONYM is a nonprofit organization and not a technology company,” Tharp said in a statement. “As such, we have not provided any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party, Presidential campaigns, or the Democratic National Committee.”
In January 2019, Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of ACRONYM, announced the company had acquired Groundbase, which was launching Shadow, a “new tech company to build smarter infrastructure for campaigns.” McGowan, a former journalist, worked as a digital producer for Obama’s 2012 campaign, according to her LinkedIn. Groundbase, a tech developer, was co-founded by Niemira and Krista Davis, who worked for the tech team on Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“With Shadow, we’re building a new model incentivized by adoption over growth, with a deep focus on building the underlying tech infrastructure that will enable campaigns to use the most effective new tools in smarter ways & better integrate + leverage data across platforms,” she wrote on Twitter last year.
McGowan launched ACRONYM in the wake of the 2016 election; the group started its own super PAC, PACRONYM, in 2018. In 2019, the PAC raised $7.7 million, according to federal filings.
During an interview with NPR in January, Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa State Democratic Party, said he hoped the app would allow the party to get the results out to the public quicker. He declined to provide additional details about which company designed the app, or about what specific measures had been put in place to guarantee the system’s security.
Party leaders said they decided to opt for the smartphone app, despite three years’ worth of warnings about Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election.
"We as the party have taken this very seriously, and we know how important it is for us to make sure that our process is secure and that we protect the integrity of the process," Price says. "We want to make sure we are not relaying information that could be used against us."
The candidates who were competing in Iowa included Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. Results are not expected until later Tuesday.
“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report,” Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure said in a statement Monday night.
“This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”