Friday, June 05, 2015

Caucus results? There's an app for that

Actually, I shouldn't use the old iPhone ad slogan for my headline, because the apps are from Microsoft.

Why did it have to be Microsoft, whined the Linux user?

But regardless of operating system, s smart phone app seems to be a smart way to go for reporting Iowa caucus results. State party chairs Jeff Kaufmann (R) and Andy McGuire (D) announced the app - appS, actually, one for each party - at a joint press conference that unfortunately got stepped on by the Iowa Legislature FINALLY adjourning, a month late, at exactly the same moment.

As one of the few who is fluent in both Caucus and Election Returns (election result reporting is one of my Job jobs for the auditor's office), smart phone apps seem like a step up from the phone-based systems both parties used through 2012.  It's the most accessible and portable level of technology that can be in 1700 places at once.

So in the big picture this is a good thing. I see a few potential pitfalls, based on my experience working with both poll workers and caucus chairs, that aren't naysaying, but rather cautionary tales of what to watch for. (I'm already signing chairs up, eight months out.)

We've added one more criteria to chairing a caucus. In elections, you can drop a poll worker into a precinct they don't live in, and they just vote early. But in the caucus, chairing a precinct other than your own means you give up your vote - and I've seen people dedicated enough to do this - but it's very rare.

Now, in addition to finding someone who lives in a precinct and is willing and able to do the job, we also need to make sure there's a smart phone on hand. Not hard in urban counties - but I don't know the patterns of cell phone use and 4G coverage in rural areas.

Plus, volunteer chairs, like paid poll workers, tend to be older. Some are still holdouts on older generation phones. Others may HAVE smart phones but be unfamiliar with use of the more robust features. Some of our poll workers are set up your own home server geniuses (see what I did there), but others struggle with sending a text. Training will be an issue... but McGuire and Kaufmann seem well aware of that.

Another issue mentioned in passing is the importance of stress testing - using the apps under realistic conditions. I'd even suggest the parties coordinate those tests and do at least one simultaneous joint dress rehearsal. From painful experience I know: the media doesn't accept "it worked when we tested it" as an explanation.

The smart phone app may even affect locations. "There will be connectivity from each precinct," stressed the Microsoft rep. That item is duly added to my checklist. Shouldn't be much of a problem in eastern Iowa, but worth double-checking everywhere.

The Microsoft spokesman spoke of flagging errors, which is something I've worked into results reporting. It catches obvious mistakes such as way too few or too many votes reported, which can happen with slipped fingers or transposed digits. It doesn't catch everything but it's saved my butt a couple times.

Assuming all goes well - never a 100% safe assumption but that's why you test and test and test - the apps should get parties and the press more data, faster, than any previous cycle. With any luck the barrier to complete results will be something real, like a long platform debate in Iowa City 18, rather than a data collection problem.

In fact, since data collection will be faster and easier, Democrats could try to collect and release more information - like attendance by county, which they stopped publishing after 2004, or even by precinct. Or the Holy Grail of all political numbers: the raw body count by candidate at first alignment. Asking for a friend.

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