Microsoft on the hot seat in Iowa


Microsoft volunteered to provide the technology to help tally up the results of Iowa’s caucuses, free of charge. Now it will be put to the test Monday night. 

The contests in both parties are expected to go down to the wire. And the spotlight will be on precinct officials who have been trained on a new Microsoft app, which is meant to cut down on human error and speed up the reporting process.

{mosads}Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Iowa have expressed strong confidence in Microsoft, dismissing late suspicion of corporate influence from the campaign of Bernie Sanders early last week.

Party officials have said no errors have been spotted in caucus dry runs. But the Sanders campaign has created its own backup reporting system, as has the Hillary Clinton campaign.

“It will be interesting to see what happens if and when there are discrepancies between the Microsoft system and either Democratic or Republican campaign tabulations,” Iowa State University professor Mack Shelley said. 

Only four years ago, the Iowa Republican Party suffered an embarrassment with its caucus reporting when Mitt Romney appeared to be the winner for weeks, only for the final tally to show a narrow victory for Rick Santorum. 

Microsoft is seeking to avoid such confusion by providing an app, backed up by its cloud technology, that will be used to help report the caucus results. 

“Microsoft and their App partner, InterKnowlogy, are global leaders in the technology industry, and we completely trust the integrity of their staff and the app,” Sam Lau, communications director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said in a statement. 

The Microsoft partnership began more than a year ago, when the company’s civic engagement team reached out to the Iowa state parties. 

In June, both parties announced that Microsoft would be creating a pair of apps, one for Republicans and one for Democrats, to help the nearly 1,700 precincts report their results to party headquarters on caucus night. 

Microsoft’s free work in Iowa — technically an in-kind campaign contribution — gives the company a chance to show off its mobile and cloud technology in the glare of the national spotlight.

“We know they are using Twitter, we know they are using Facebook, right, we know they are using our Bing search or Google — they are using all the different technologies,” Microsoft Vice President Dan’l Lewin said. “So we are just organizing our best practices and picking places where we can illustrate how our technology can be used effectively.” 

Microsoft is sponsoring the press center in Iowa for the caucuses, ensuring that their brand will be front-and-center during one of the biggest political events of the year.

The Microsoft apps will be replacing a phone reporting system used in 2008 and 2012 that required precincts to report their results through a touchtone keypad — increasing the potential for human error.

The Microsoft app allows only credentialed users to report results and will require precincts to double-check the results before they are sent off. It also has a way to flag anomalies and will give the public and press quicker access once the results are reported to headquarters. 

Not everyone is happy about Microsoft’s involvement.

Pete D’Alessandro, who runs the Sanders operation in Iowa, last week questioned the tech giant’s motivations. However, the campaign declined to expand on its concerns after multiple requests for clarification. 

Other aides to Sanders noted that Microsoft employees have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton campaign, according to MSNBC.

“You’d have to ask yourself why they’d want to give something like that away for free,” D’Alessandro said.

Microsoft has said it is focused solely on helping to conduct a neutral and accurate election by helping the officials who are manning the caucus sites.

Iowa GOP Party co-chairman Cody Hoefert chalked up the broadside at Microsoft to “political posturing, as maybe the senator is somewhat concerned about how caucus night may go for him.”

Lewin, Microsoft’s vice president, would not speculate on the motivation of the Sanders campaign and said Microsoft has only interacted with the parties. 

“I have personal opinions, but I’ll keep them to myself,” he said.

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