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Maker Behind Glitchy Caucus App Has Democratic Party Ties

The start-up's founders presented themselves as gurus of campaigning in the digital era.

Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside of the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside of the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
AP Photo/Nati Harnik

WASHINGTON (AP) — The little-known technology start-up under scrutiny after the meltdown of the Iowa Democratic caucuses on Monday was founded little more than a year ago by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign who had presented themselves as gurus of campaigning in the digital era.

Shadow Inc. was picked in secret by the Iowa Democratic Party after its leaders consulted with the Democratic National Committee on vetting vendors and security protocols for developing a phone app used to gather and tabulate the caucus results.

Party officials in Iowa blamed an unspecified “coding issue” with the software that led to it producing only partial and unreliable results. It did not identify the firm that produced the technology, but campaign disclosure reports show that the Iowa party paid $63,000 to Shadow in late 2019.

After the company came under withering criticism on social media Tuesday, it issued a series of tweets that expressed “regret” over technical glitches which contributed to a delay in the release of results, but stopped short of apologizing.

“We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers,” the company posted Tuesday on Twitter. “We will apply the lessons learned in the future, and have already corrected the underlying technology issue. We take these issues very seriously, and are committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party’s goal of modernizing its election processes.”

Shadow Inc. was launched by ACRONYM, a nonprofit corporation founded in 2017 by Tara McGowan, a political strategist who runs companies aimed at promoting Democratic candidates and priorities. McGowan, 34, is married to Michael Halle, a senior strategist for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, which records show has also paid Shadow Inc. $42,500 for software.

McGowan sought to distance herself from Shadow's IowaReporterApp on Monday night, characterizing the app developer as an “independent” company. In a separate statement, an ACRONYM spokesman said the nonprofit organization is an investor in several companies, including Shadow, but was “eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party with respect to what happened.”

But business and tax records show ACRONYM and Shadow are registered at the same Washington, D.C., street address, which belongs to a WeWork co-working location. Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira previously served as the chief operating officer and chief technology officer at ACRONYM, according to an online resume.

And on Sunday, McGowan tweeted pictures from a birthday celebration that included her husband and Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

ACRONYM presents itself as a cutting-edge leader when it comes to running political campaigns online. It announced ambitious plans in November to spend $75 million targeting President Donald Trump with online advertising, while irking many party leaders with sharp criticism of other established Democratic groups for not doing enough to combat Trump in the digital space.

So far, Facebook ad disclosures show the group has spent about $700,000 on ads. ACRONYM leaders said in November that they had raised about 40 percent of the $75 million they hoped for. But by the end of 2019, it had raised only about one-tenth of that, according to a disclosure filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission. A separate tax-exempt wing of the group won't have to disclose how much money it has raised to the IRS until next year.

David Plouffe, who helped lead both of former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, joined ACRONYM's board of directors in September.

Just who works at Shadow was not clear on the company's webpage Tuesday. But resumes posted on the online business networking site LinkedIn show the company's top executives all worked in the Clinton campaign's digital operation in 2016.

Niemira, the CEO, was Clinton's director of product, responsible for creating a digital platform for field organizers to contact voters and manage local volunteers “while opening up new avenues of data collection for the campaign.”

James Hickey, Shadow's chief operating officer, was an engineering manager at Hillary for America. Krista Davis, the chief technical officer and chief software architect at Shadow, was a backend engineer for the Clinton campaign.

The month after Clinton's 2016 loss to Trump, Niemira and Davis founded Groundbase, a political technology company that Hickey soon joined. In January 2019, ACRONYM announced via tweet that it had bought Groundbase, which provided a text-messaging software tool for organizing campaign volunteers.

“We've acquired SMS tool Groundbase & are launching Shadow, a company focused on building the technology infrastructure needed to enable Democrats to run better, more efficient campaigns,” ACRONYM announced.

The professional and social connections between Shadow and members of the party's establishment were feeding conspiracy theories Tuesday among some Democrats that something was fishy with the company's glitchy Iowa app — suspicions Trump and his GOP allies were looking to stoke.

Donald Trump Jr. took to social media Monday night to suggest the DNC was attempting to rig the primary, harkening back to embarrassing 2016 email leaks that showed party leaders favoring Clinton over her primary rival Bernie Sanders. Many swing-state supporters of the Vermont senator then stayed home on Election Day, aiding Trump's narrow victory.

“Yea rigging the primary worked wonders for the Democrats last time,” the president's eldest son wrote in a series of tweets. “And by ‘Quality Control’ they mean fixing the results to get the candidate the Democrat Overlords in DC want.”

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