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Shadow Inc.: How a company with 120 Facebook likes ended up at the center of the Iowa caucus firestorm

February 6, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

The first official votes of the 2020 presidential race were delayed three days after a little-known vote tabulation app experienced massive technical errors during the Democratic Iowa caucuses Monday evening.

With the 2020 race accelerating, one would think the Democratic National Committee would go with battle-tested software—not a brand-new app. But now the U.S. electorate is demanding an explanation from Shadow Inc., after Iowa Democrats used its glitchy, undependable app to tabulate votes, derailing a crucial part of the American electoral process and ultimately playing into Trump’s—and conspiracy theorists’—hands.

Before this week, virtually no one knew of the little startup. The company’s app, Shadow—developed in part by Acronym, a “values-driven” nonprofit organization aiming to “educate, inspire, register, and mobilize voters”—was contracted by the DNC for the caucus.

For a Washington, D.C., startup with 120 Facebook likes, that’s a tall order.

The Shadow app was distributed through TestFairy, a mobile app testing platform, rather than the official app stores on Android and iOS, with their far more stringent security and performance requirements.

“[We help] companies release better apps in shorter development cycles,” Yair Bar-On, the cofounder and CEO of TestFairy, tells Fortune. “The main reason our customers use us is security since we not only provide the service on a private cloud but also provide data encryption.”

“By definition, beta apps have bugs,” he says. “TestFairy does not replace the App Store.”

Speaking anonymously to the New York Times, two Acronym sources said that they released Shadow through TestFairy because they ran out of time for the app stores to approve it. 

So, why would Shadow—untested, unknown, unstable—be green-lighted by the DNC to bear such a grave responsibility? The answer may lie in Acronym executives’ extensive ties to high-profile and influential Democrats.

An app with party ties

Acronym’s COO, Kim Peyser, is a former Obama administration official; its training manager, Andrea Ramos, is also the digital organizing director for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign; and the company’s founder and CEO, Tara McCowan, was deemed “the Democrats’ most dangerous digital strategist” by OZY for bringing disparate parts of progressive campaigning, like door knocking, social media campaigning, and TV and online content, together under one corporate umbrella.

As far as Shadow, the company’s CEO, Gerard Niemira, states on his LinkedIn page that he “[led a] small but mighty team” for Hillary Clinton’s “Hillary for America” campaign in 2016. And Shadow’s COO, James Hickey, an Oberlin College graduate in 2007, also worked for the Clinton campaign as an engineering manager.

Acronym, which Fortune could not reach for comment, has distanced itself from Shadow, saying it is a mere “investor” in the startup—despite stating last January that they “launched Shadow,” a proclamation since scrubbed from Acronym’s website.

“[We are] a nonprofit organization and not a technology company,” a spokesperson from Acronym told CRN. “As such, we have not provided any technology to the Iowa Democratic Party.”

Groundbase, a technology platform acquired by Shadow to develop the app, was similarly scrubbed from the portfolio of early investor Higher Ground Labs.

Aiming to quell still-warm concerns about foreign meddling, Mandy McClure, the communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party, was quick to call the snafu “not a hack or an intrusion,” but “a reporting issue.”

“The underlying data and paper trail is sound,” she said in a statement. “[It] will simply take time to further report the results.”

As of Thursday evening, the Iowa results were 100% reported, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) neck and neck at 26.2% and 26.1%, respectively. “An unmitigated disaster,” President Donald Trump tweeted

“I don’t think people gave us a chance to win,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said

After facing heat for what was seen as a premature victory speech, Buttigieg called his numbers so far “verifiable but still very, very frustrating.”

Whether owing to possible interests within the Democratic Party or a lack of plain old technological oversight, the fact remains Shadow was not ready to be brought into the fray, and the Iowa caucus suffered because of it. 

And when the mere act of tallying a caucus vote leads to this level of disarray, those opposed to Democrats may echo political consultant Brad Blakeman, as quoted by Trump: “[They] want to run a country, and they can’t run a caucus.” 

Whether or not Blakeman is oversimplifying the matter, the lesson of Shadow and of the still-bungled Iowa caucus is clear—the electoral process is too precious for slapdash technology.

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