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Wed 19 February 2020
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Stephen Delahunty reports on concerns about electoral tech platforms, SuperPacs, and the fears of foreign interference resurfacing in the US Democratic Party.

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Winning the first state for US Democratic Party Presidential hopefuls is supposed to give their campaign instant credibility, increase momentum, and often results in more favourable media coverage. 

Instead, last week’s Iowa caucus turned into a farce after a delay in reporting caused by a failed app developed by the appropriately named tech company Shadow, had many social media users questioning how the Iowa Democratic Party’s nomination had come down to little more than a coin toss.

The tech company was paid $60,000 over two installments by the Iowa Democratic Party to build an app to help make caucus voting easier and faster for precinct volunteers. 

By the end of the week, as the results slowly dripped out, Presidential hopefuls Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders both declared themselves winners. With Buttigieg ahead by less than one percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting data.

However, in the week-long political vacuum that followed the Iowa Democratic Party delaying the results the internet became awash with conspiracy theories — of intentional vote-rigging, hacking, Russia, claims of an anti-Sanders stitch up, or that Buttigrieg was in league with the app developers.

Fears of Russian style as investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller were only intensified with allegations from Adrienne Cobb of Forensic News that the Soviet-born oligarch, Len Blatavatnik, who gave $1m to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee also donated $5,200 to Buttigieg’s campaign last year.


Acronym and Patronym

In July last year, the Pete For American campaign paid Shadow $43,000 for software rights and subscriptions. It then did itself no favours by declaring Iowa as a “victory” despite the lack of official results.

However, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings reveal the company also received money from Joe Biden’s campaign, and a number of other Democratic Party states for services ranging from “texting platforms” and “technology services”.

Shadow’s core team is led by CEO Gerard Niemira and is made up of veterans of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2016. Following the delay in reporting Niemira placed a message of regret on the company’s website that promised to “apply the lessons learned” and that “the underlying technology issue” had already been resolved.

Fuelling the conspiracy flames was the role of another new and well-funded nonprofit called Acronym. Niemira, for example, was the CTO of Acronym until the spring of 2019, while he also served as the founder and CEO of a separate company, Groundbase.

In January 2019, Acronym’s founder, Tara McGowan, tweeted that her organization had acquired Groundbase and was launching Shadow. It also appears that McGowan was at some point operationally involved with Shadow, and in the past she has tweeted support for Buttigieg’s campaign.

Furthermore, Buttgieg’s national organiser, Greta Carnes, left her role as senior director of organising at Acronym in April last year, just two months before his campaign paid Shadow for its services.

Acronym has since put out a statement attempting to distance itself from Shadow. “Acronym is an investor in several for-profit companies across the progressive media and technology sectors,” the company said. “One of those independent, for-profit companies is Shadow, Inc, which has other private investors.” 

But Acronym also runs a SuperPAC, called Pacronym, which its website says has “helped elect 65 progressive candidates across the country with new tech and digital-first strategies to register and turn out voters”.

It received a number of wealthy donors that include a former Republican donor Seth Klarman, who has also contributed directly to Buttigieg’s campaign.

Another donor includes hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, his daughter is an MSNBC pundit who has used her platform to criticise other Democratic candidate’s campaigns. A relationship that fuelled anti-Sanders conspiracies.

However, the problem with drawing conclusions from these connections is that they often assume high levels of coordination and competence, while the fallout from Iowa suggests the opposite is true.

In this light, the reality looks like an attempt by political and financial elites in Washington attempting to redress the effectiveness of their digital operations in a Democratic Party still reeling from its 2016 election defeat to President Trump – rather than anything more sinister.


On to Nevada

Although, the conspiracies are likely to continue as filings with the FEC reveal that the Nevada Democratic Party paid Shadow $58,000 for “website development” in August last year – its caucuses are in just over two weeks.

In September 2019, the Buttigieg campaign announced that the former executive director of the Nevada Assembly Democratic Caucus, Paul Selberg, as his campaign’s state director for Nevada.

The Iowa Democratic Party has tried to dampen fears about the integrity of the data. The party’s chair Tom Price said: “This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”

“Because of the required paper documentation, we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate.” 

The Byline Times contacted the Buttigieg campaign to explain their procurement process but has not received a response. Questions around the integrity of the electoral process are likely to continue unless all states and campaigns come clean about their relationships with this particular tech company.


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