Iowa’s debacle is Pennsylvania’s nightmare.
And it’s one that could happen here in November, elections experts said, when all eyes are on the critical battleground state.
Some of the problems with Monday’s Democratic caucuses in Iowa — issues relaying results from precincts to a central location, lack of substantive information as problems arose, new technology and rules — could be present as Pennsylvania uses new voting machines and implements the most dramatic electoral changes in decades.
“Iowa last night was unfortunate in a lot of ways," said Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, whose new book, Election Meltdown, was released Tuesday. "First, it was unfortunate because the Democratic Party did not have its act together. It was using new technology and new rules, just like we’re going to see in Pennsylvania.”
And Pennsylvania elections officials have already warned that results may take longer to tally than they have in the past, which could create space for the spread of unfounded claims of voter fraud and election malfeasance.
Just look at Iowa.
With emotions running high and no real information, misinformation and disinformation spread quickly. Donald Trump Jr. and Brad Parscale, the president’s reelection campaign manager, both raised questions of election integrity, with the younger Trump in particular spreading unfounded claims of election rigging and malfeasance.
There’s no evidence of fraud, and Iowa Democratic officials said there was no sign of a hack. But those claims still quickly found traction online.
“It is unbelievably reckless for folks to be spreading wholly unsubstantial claims around what happened in Iowa, or suggesting the results are rigged, or the results are inaccurate. That’s just not true,” said Christopher R. Deluzio, policy director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law.
It will likely take longer this year to declare a winner in Pennsylvania, thanks to an expected increase in absentee ballots that in many counties won’t be counted on election night. And those ballots could change the vote totals significantly, including flipping an election night lead. If people are unprepared for that, Deluzio and Hasen said, false claims of fraud could spread once again.
And voter confidence, once lost, is hard to regain.
“Given how much mistrust there is, and how much partisanship there is,” Hasen said, “whatever can be done to assure people that an election’s being conducted fairly and responsibly is going to be helpful.”
In part, Hasen said, election officials — and the news media — need to set public expectations in advance by clearly laying out what will and won’t be available on election night and how elections are run.
“Just like in a natural disaster, just like with the coronavirus, we want to know what’s happening and what our risks are,” he said. “Same thing with elections and our risks associated with that.”
The caucuses underscored the importance of having a paper trail as a backup record of results, and the potential dangers of technology.
Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said what the Iowa caucuses have in common with Pennsylvania "is the very important backup provided by paper records. With the new voting systems that will be in use in every Pennsylvania county for the April 28 primary and beyond, voters can be assured that they will be able to verify their choices before they cast their ballots, and that election officials will have paper records with plain text to carry out post-election audits and recounts.”
In Iowa, a new app meant to simplify the task of reporting results from precincts to state headquarters appeared to run into significant problems, and phone lines were tied up as precinct officials sought to relay their results.
But each precinct had its results, party officials emphasized, and even if it takes time to tally them, a paper record remains.
In Pennsylvania, most votes used to be cast on paperless machines that recorded results in electronic memory. But Gov. Tom Wolf ordered every county to upgrade to machines that leave auditable, verifiable paper trails of votes cast in time for the 2020 election. (Many counties use hand-marked paper ballots that voters manually fill out and then scan, while others, including Philadelphia, use electronic machines that some experts have criticized as less secure from attack and more prone to mishap.)
“If something happened around reporting the results from counties to the Department of State here in Pennsylvania, even if we don’t have those unofficial election night results, we’d have the results and the ballots we could count,” Deluzio said. “We could offer the public evidence that results are true and correct. That’s key, and that’s just been a big change.”
At the end of the day, Hasen and Deluzio said, it’s important to understand that elections are complex, and delays may be appropriate, not nefarious.