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Confusion and embarrassment in Iowa: What went wrong, and what happens next?

Chaos reigns on Iowa caucuses
Chaotic finish with no winner announced to Iowa caucuses 17:29

The Iowa Democratic Party initially promised results of the state's long awaited "first-in-the-nation" caucuses by late Monday night. As the evening unfolded, however, a string of technical and human errors created chaos, delayed the results, and undermined confidence in the process. Here's what happened.

There appears to have been no issue with the actual voting, but rather with how those vote tallies were reported. 

The confusion started when precinct leaders, or captains — the people tasked with reporting their local precinct's results to Iowa's Democratic Party — attempted to send tallies.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party opted to use a smartphone app to help calculate and share precinct results. Relying on an app was a controversial choice due to the history of hacking against the Democratic Party and the potential for problems that can arise when using unproven new technology in high-stakes situations.

Since caucusing is a social event, verified by in-person witnesses, paper backups and photos, there was little risk that results could be changed through the app without someone noticing.

"We have every indication that our systems were secure and there was not a cyber security intrusion," Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said in a statement released Tuesday morning. "In preparation for the caucuses, our systems were tested by independent cybersecurity consultants."

Officials stressed there was no evidence of a cyberattack, but the cyber-failure set off widespread confusion.

Precinct captains experienced technical difficulties with reporting their results through the app. The party later identified a "coding issue in the reporting system," Price said in his statement. 

Iowa Democrats blame app for delaying 2020 caucus results 07:00

"As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data," he said. "... The application's reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately."

There appear to have been signs before caucus day that the technology wasn't up to the job. Sean Bagniewski, the Polk County chair, told CBS News they noticed things going wrong with the app last week — people weren't able to download it, couldn't log in or test it. By Thursday they were telling people to call in results the way it had been done before.

When the app failed Monday night, precinct captains went to plan B and called the Iowa Democratic Party directly through a "hotline" set up as backup for reporting results. While the party planned for potential phone reporting, they appear to have underestimated to what extent it could be needed. 

The hotline was overwhelmed with calls. 

One precinct captain was put on hold for an hour while trying to report his results. He was on the air with CNN talking about the situation when someone finally picked up his call — and then the party hung up on him on live television.

This wasn't an isolated incident.

"I was on hold for 40 minutes at my precinct. I gave up and hung up and returned to our HQ," said Black Hawk County Vice Chair Nate Guber.

When CBS News attempted to call the hotline, a recorded message said: "Thank you for calling the Iowa Democratic Party's Caucus Hotline. All of our operators are currently busy. Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. We look forward to talking to you soon," before playing hold music.

As results eventually trickled in to the Iowa Democratic Party, new problems arose. 

In addition to the results from the app, the party also uses "photos of results and a paper trail" to tabulate and validate the results coming from precincts. According to Price, as precinct results started coming in, an "accuracy and quality check" showed that there were "inconsistencies with the reports."

The three sets of results did not all match up.

"The underlying cause of these inconsistencies was not immediately clear, and required investigation, which took time," Price said on Tuesday. "As this investigation unfolded, IDP staff activated pre-planned backup measures and entered data manually. This took longer than expected."

While the Iowa Democratic Party set about manually tabulating delegates, the time when final results were supposed to be reported came and went. Finally the candidates decided to start speaking out.

After midnight — though zeroes were still next to each candidate's name on the Iowa Democratic Party's website — candidates eager for positive optics delivered a spate of overlapping victory speeches to their supporters, contributing to the overall confusion. Many then hopped on flights to New Hampshire for another week of frenetic campaigning.

In his statement, Price said the party has verified that the app's data was "valid and accurate," but said "precinct level results are still being reported."

On Tuesday, state party officials were meeting with every county party chair in order to collect their physical voting materials, including voter rolls, caucus math worksheets, presidential preference cards and new Democratic voter registration forms. 

"While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld," Price said.

On a call with campaigns at midday Tuesday, Price said the party would release the majority of caucus results by 4 p.m. Central (5 p.m. ET). When asked when the complete results would be announced, Price responded: "We're continuing to work through our process; as soon as we can."

As the Iowa caucus disintegrated, public confidence in the process inevitably went with it. Many Republicans seized the moment.

"Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history. It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process. And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?" Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. 

Republican Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a staunch defender of President Trump, used the confusion to take aim at Democrats' policy positions.

"Folks — this is the party that wants to run your healthcare, control your employment, decide what kind of car you can drive, and more," he tweeted.

Iowa's top Republicans, however, defended their state's caucusing process.

"Iowans and all Americans should know we have complete confidence that every last vote will be counted and every last voice will be heard," Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, said in a statement released on Tuesday. "We look forward to Iowa carrying on its bipartisan legacy of service in the presidential nominating process."

– Adam Brewster and Musadiq Bidar contributed reporting.

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