Last night, the citizens of Iowa kicked off the presidential nomination process by coming out in record numbers to participate in the quirky, uniquely American Iowa Caucus. The event’s complicated voting process, with Republicans using a secret ballot and Democrats showing their support for candidates based on their location in the room, has resulted in a number of vote counting and reporting errors over the course of its history. Most recently, in 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the initial winner when in fact Rick Santorum had won by a mere 34 votes; a finding that took two weeks to determine and release publicly. This error afforded Romney a host of political benefits, including increased publicity and access to funding that he might not have otherwise received. Perhaps more vexing, however, was the fact that votes from eight of the state’s 1,774 precincts were lost in the process. While a small proportion of the total number of votes cast, this incident generated concern among many participants, causing them to question the legitimacy of the political process, in which all voters expect to have an equal voice.
Elections, if only due to their colossal size, are difficult to measure. The Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election exemplifies the issues associated with vote counting and the often unsuccessful implementation of technology to remedy a centuries old process. Moreover, technology in the election process is often accompanied by great skepticism, and blunders are not uncommon—see Mitt Romney’s 2012 ORCA program failure. As a result, it was not surprising to learn that Microsoft had developed and deployed a mobile application to count 2016 Iowa Caucus votes and streamline the process of distributing this information to party officials.
Modernizing the Voting Process
Microsoft in collaboration with its partner, InterKnowlogy, developed two mobile applications (one for Democrats and one for Republicans) that enable fail-safe data entry into its Azure cloud system; thus, providing timely and accurate results to party leaders, the media, and the public. While very simple applications, they nonetheless helped modernize a process previously reliant on pen, paper, and landline telephones. Furthermore, to enhance security, Microsoft built two-factor authentication into the application; a feature important for ensuring only privileged Caucus workers had access to the system.
Likely a public relations opportunity for Microsoft (the company offered its software for free), the process went smoothly despite some extremely close contests that could have caused a vote counting and reporting error in previous caucuses. This outcome, not only highlighted Microsoft technology, but also illustrated the transformative nature of mobile technology. While Microsoft and the political parties do not at this time intend to use the applications for other upcoming caucuses and primaries, the precedent has nevertheless been established.
The use of mobile technologies in the voting process remains limited, with traditional data collection (pen and paper) and information distribution (mail) processes the norm. As a result, attempts to improve the accuracy and speed of the process should spur mobile technology adoption over the course of the electoral season. For even Clinton’s and Sanders’s campaign created their own Caucus applications to track the outcomes throughout the course of the night in an attempt to fact-check the process.
Campaigning in the age of Mobility
Candidates for political office have understood the importance of technology for some time, with Obama successfully employing analytics and social media tools to win the 2008 presidential election. Since that time, mobile technologies have evolved substantially and the American populous’ use of these devices has similarly increased. As a result, candidates over the course of this election season will leverage these technologies even more as they attempt to systematically target potential voters and craft political messages.
Microsoft may have not made money on the Iowa Caucus deal, but many technology companies are positioned to benefit this year from billions of dollars of spending on political advertisements. A large portion of which will go to Google and Facebook, given their substantial user bases and advanced targeting capabilities. The advertisements and the platforms they run on are important, but success will largely depend on a campaign’s ability to leverage big data pertaining to potential voters. Utilizing advanced analytics, campaigns will refine their messages and targeting to have the greatest impact.
Digital and technical expertise differs significantly by party, as exemplified by the notable adeptness of the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Republicans, acknowledging the importance of leveraging data and digital platforms, have invested heavily in these areas as of late—either building in-house capabilities or hiring digital companies, such as Targeted Victory and Harris Media. Nonetheless, Democrats still possess greater resources in these areas and have stronger ties to Silicon Valley. In particular, Hillary Clinton’s chief technology officer Stephanie Hannon, a director of product management for civic innovation and social impact at Google, brings unmatched technical experience and knowledge to the campaign trail.
An Evolving Political Future
Mobile technology, as a tool for advertising and voter engagement, will reach record heights this year as candidates attempt to accurately target and mobilize their voter bases. Mobile is fast becoming the most effective medium for reaching target audiences, and politicians like companies continue to shift their resources towards this channel. More interesting, however, is the use of mobile technology to support electoral processes as in the case of the Iowa Caucus. Mobile devices and applications support mission-critical workflows in a number of industries from healthcare to public safety, but the political process has largely remained outside the influence of these technologies. In this way, Microsoft set a precedent that will likely serve as an impetus for further modernization. However, it will be the people, ultimately, who will need to decide the extent to which technology will be allowed to influence the electoral process.