Iowa Dems train to fight caucus disinformation

An attendee examines a blank Presidential Preference Card
An attendee examines a blank Presidential Preference Card during a mock caucus event on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 in Mason City, Iowa. The event was held in advance of the Iowa presidential caucuses on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Getty Images

The last time Iowans gathered for their first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, it was something of a mess.

On the Republican side, then-candidate Donald Trump accused Ted Cruz of “stealing” the caucus for spreading false information about Trump’s health care position and that rival Ben Carson had dropped from the race.

Democrats had problems, too. Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders by a razor-thin margin after a hectic caucus night that wound up using coin tosses to award delegates in a few cases.

“Once again the world is laughing at Iowa,” the Des Moines Register’s editorial board wrote shortly after the 2016 caucus fracus.

The 2016 Iowa caucuses foreshadowed just how much impact disinformation spread over social media would eventually have in the general election. Knowing the same scenario could play out again this year, Iowa Democrats have made changes to ensure the caucuses remain fair and free from outside influence.

“The Iowa Democratic Party is instituting the most historic changes to the caucus process since its creation in 1972,” reads a party document. “These changes include opportunities for people to participate at satellite caucus sites, streamlined realignments,and new recount procedures.”

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Dems get training from Harvard

With President Trump running virtually unopposed in his party for reelection, the Democrats have the only competitive caucuses in Iowa in 2020.

Ahead of the 2020 campaign, staff from the Defending Digital Democracy Project within Harvard’s Belfer Center helped election officials from both parties across the country, including Iowa, prepare for disinformation in their caucuses.

Maria Barsallo Lynch, the project’s executive director, said meddling in U.S. elections, whether it be from Russians, people inside the country or other adversaries, prompted the project.

“We felt like caucuses like Iowa that have an outsized impact on the election process could be a target for an adversary who want to continue to look at ways to attack our democratic processes,” said Barsallo.

Lynch said “bipartisan cyber incident simulation” exercises helped train election officials for some of the threats they may face before, during and after caucuses.

“The exercise kind of looked to bring to life a range of topics from potential cyber and information attacks ... to operational threats that they might occur on a typical caucus night,” she said.

Barsallo said one potential issue could be with long lines at caucuses, complicating the process and adding another layer of complexity to the process.

The exercises “are a really important tool to help decision makers practice and update their response processes and actions and preparing for cyber and information threats,” Lynch said

Caucus apps a security threat?

Iowa Democrats will use a phone app to help tabulate and send caucus results to party headquarters this year.

Party officials say the app is safe, but NPR reports that Democrats’ choice to keep private the app’s technical details is problematic.

"The idea of security through obscurity is almost always a mistake," Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor and former caucus precinct leader, told NPR. "Drawing the blinds on the process leaves us, in the public, in a position where we can't even assess the competence of the people doing something on our behalf."

However, one former Democratic party chair said using an app to help with results isn’t new. Megan Suhr, a Knoxville, Iowa, city council member who used to be her local Democratic leader, told MPR News that she used a caucus app in previous elections.

Suhr said she isn’t worried about disinformation in the caucuses, either. While caucuses are complicated — involving intricate math and sometimes confusing rules — Suhr describes them as a gathering of community members to pick their best candidate.

“The caucus isn't an election. It's an organization with your neighbors to choose the most viable candidate moving forward,” she said. “There's not a way to rig any of the caucus process.”