When Maryfrances Evans could not figure out how to use the app intended to record the results of the Democratic caucus in her Webster Township precinct on Monday night, the veteran caucus-goer asked her teenage daughter to help.
But Ms Evans, who volunteered as a caucus chair, still struggled to input the results from her 42-person meeting, where former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders came in first and second place, respectively. So she decided to phone in the totals instead.
She spent the next 90 minutes on hold, before being disconnected. In the end, she texted a photograph to party officials in her county — and delivered a sealed envelope with all of the ballots, or “presidential preference cards”, to a designated drop-off point.
Having a paper trail of preference cards was always part of the Iowa Democrats’ plan for the 2020 caucuses. A near-24-hour delay in releasing official results was not.
When Iowa Democrats gathered in caucuses throughout the state at 7pm on Monday, results from the first major polling event of the Democratic presidential primary contest were expected some three hours later.
But after what party officials described as “quality control” issues, “inconsistencies” and a “coding error”, the first tranche of results were reported late Tuesday afternoon, with Mr Buttigieg jumping to a narrow lead over Mr Sanders in terms of delegates, with just under two-thirds of precincts reporting.
Many Iowans, who take pride in the caucus system and their so-called first-in-the-nation status, expressed remorse about the way things played out.
“It breaks my heart that the whole process is being painted with this brush,” said Ms Evans, adding that volunteers and local party officials had made a valiant effort. “I have never seen people work harder to get something done.”
Unlike a primary, where voters cast a secret ballot, caucuses are small meetings in places such as schools and libraries, where voters publicly declare who they support. In Iowa, Democratic caucus-goers align with their first preference, before realigning to a second candidate if their initial choice is not deemed “viable” with less than 15 per cent of the vote. Delegates are then allocated proportionally based on candidates’ totals in the second round.
Iowa Democrats historically reported only the delegate counts from individual precincts. But this year, in response to criticisms about a lack of transparency following the 2016 caucuses — when Hillary Clinton beat Mr Sanders by a razor-thin margin — Iowa Democrats decided after negotiations with the nationwide Democratic National Committee to release raw totals for first and second rounds of voting, as well as the delegate totals. Preference cards were rolled out to ensure a hard copy of all results.
Other changes included the introduction of “satellite caucuses” for Iowans living out-of-state or abroad, or for people who could not travel to traditional caucus sites, such as people in nursing homes.
Satellite caucuses were conceived after Iowa Democrats’ initial suggestions of “virtual caucuses” — with voters stating their preferences online — were rejected by the DNC on cyber security concerns.
Sam Roecker, a former communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, said problems only became clear when it was time for results to be submitted.
Among the issues were confusion over reporting three sets of data, rather than the one set of figures used in previous years.
“The biggest thing you have to remember is these are volunteer-led caucuses,” Mr Roecker said. “You have 1,600-plus precincts across the state where volunteers are really in charge of running these things.”
Many reported similar experiences to Ms Evans. Jim Kelehan, a caucus chair in Marshalltown, a city halfway between Des Moines and Waterloo, said he was locked out of the reporting app during voting rounds. He said that in one instance, all of the information he entered had been erased. On another occasion, it appeared the numbers from the first alignment had been lost, when in fact the data had registered.
Jeannine Grady, the Democratic county chair in Marshall County, said about two-thirds of the precincts in her county reported problems submitting results.
“The directions [for the app] were extremely complicated and you know a lot of people are just not tech savvy,” she said, adding that she told “a lot” of caucus chairs to instead call in their results. But like Ms Evans, they ended up waiting on hold for more than an hour at a time.
Volunteers struggled with the app’s authentication processes, which involved both a test pin and permanent pin, and a two-step verification. Ms Grady said most of the app’s problems appeared to stem from the “abundance of care [the party took] to make sure it was very secure”.
Others said that spotty Internet service, especially in rural caucus locations, caused delays in transmitting information over the mobile app.
In Nichols — population 361 — Cassie Moon said her local precinct chair struggled with the “almost non-existent” Internet service in the building. Eventually the chair called in the results on a landline phone.
A 38-page page “caucus guide” published by the state party mentioned the app just eight times, but provided no instruction of how the tool actually worked. A “caucus chair checklist” only said “don’t forget to report using the reporting app throughout the caucus”.
“Ultimately the real problem was human errors,” said one person active in statewide Democratic politics, who asked not to be named. [Iowa Democrats] “weren’t prepared.”