The threat of private interests obscuring the purity of political processes is more prevalent today than ever. Business and politics have always been closely intertwined, as those occupying the two domains capitalize on their coinciding interests. In utilizing tools of political pressure and paving the way for political corruption, for-profit businesses may exert their influence over policies principally to their own advantage.
This association is now complicated through both the rise and proliferation of technology companies and the government’s expanded reliance on their technology in an attempt to expedite and update their antique procedures. The drive for capitalistic acquisition inherent to the political realm has taken a newfound supremacy, endangering the fairness and efficiency of our already delicate democratic system.
Considering the unprecedented rise in 21st-century technological capabilities, it’s unsurprising that our government seeks to modernize its outdated systems. Yet, outdated doesn’t inherently mean unreliable, as experimentation with voting technology has proven. The accuracy of new mechanisms aimed at facilitating political processes are rightfully under scrutiny. Earlier this month, the Iowa caucuses debacle particularly illuminated the challenges underlying such a new dependency. As a side note, caucuses are a peculiar part of our intrinsically complex political system, differing from primaries to the extent they’re often focused particularly on local populations openly voicing their nomination choice. Furthermore, they’re organized by specific political parties instead of arranged solely through the state.
In the case of Iowa, the situation’s principal disorder came from its Democratic Party’s use of an insufficiently tested smartphone app to tabulate results. Commissioning for-profit technology company Shadow Inc. to create the app less than two months before the caucuses, its speedy development left little time for thorough testing. Albeit, party officials reported no suspicions regarding app malfunctions, introducing new technology to traditional voting procedures without acknowledging all problems that could possibly arise. As a result, there were many factors present complicating the process, including a general unfamiliarity with the system, the high error rate in transmitting results to caucus chairs and the inability for many to properly log in and use the app at all — consequently preventing them from voting properly. The final results of the debacle unsurprisingly proved to be just as unsatisfactory as the process itself. Although Bernie Sanders won the popular vote, Pete Buttigieg amassed a higher percentage of state delegates based on a flawed caucus system made worse by unnecessary technology.
Although the chaos apparent in the Iowa caucuses undoubtedly tied back to the Democrat’s reliance on experimental technology, the choice of Shadow Inc. in particular wasn’t some random fluke. In November and December, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) paid a total of $63,183 to Shadow Inc. for “website development,” according to the campaign’s financial disclosure report. Specific candidates too had prior connections to the for-profit business, as Buttigieg’s campaign had donated tens of thousands of dollars last year to Shadow Inc. for “software rights and subscriptions,” according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. A spokesperson for the campaign later said the nature of the transaction was for the company to aid in the campaign’s voter contact through improved text messaging services. Besides Buttigieg and the IDP, FEC filings also showed that the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) paid Shadow Inc. $58,000 for “technology services” in August.
Nevada’s contributions to Shadow Inc. is important because the next Democratic caucus will occur there on Feb. 22. Subsequent to the incident in Iowa, the NSDP had originally intended to use Shadow Inc.’s same app but have naturally reconsidered, despite past financial ties. Not only will the app not be used in Nevada, but it won’t be used anywhere in the United States during preliminary elections, according to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. Instead of following the lead of New Hampshire, which prohibited all technology use during its general primary election held on Feb. 11, Nevada plans on using a different technological means to collect voting results. Characterized as a caucus “tool” to be preloaded onto caucus chair iPads, the party emphasized the difference between its new hardware and other app use, although without explicitly delineating that difference.
Technology holds great promise for facilitating political processes, with the possibility of expediting ancient voting procedures, and even increasing mainstream voter participation by making the entire process more accessible and comprehensible. However, such experimentation with modern technology needs to be just that — researched and tested beforehand, not thrown together weeks before critical elections and forced onto the public as reliable. Apps, or “tools,” aimed at revitalizing traditional means of voting routines must not only go through trial prior to public use, but also be continually regulated. Technological management is fundamental to avoid repeating Iowa’s shortcomings and to evade the possibility of utilizing products by private businesses which offer haphazard services.
In essence, the proliferation of technology has substantially altered traditional political procedures. By introducing new paths for profit-driven third-party groups to affect longstanding democratic processes, for-profit interests further infiltrate political advocacy. Politics will never be completely distanced from superficial desires of external businesses, or individual politicians, but today’s increased acceptance of technology in elections are sure to thwart our theoretically democratic system, simply reinforcing the problems already inherent within it instead of supplying a viable solution.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a junior majoring in political science.