DES MOINES, Iowa -- The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is raising questions about the involvement of Microsoft in the Iowa Caucuses, now just days away, and has built an independent system to check the official results.
For the first time this year, Microsoft partnered with the Iowa Democratic and Republican Parties to provide a technology platform with which the parties will run their caucuses. The software giant created separate mobile apps for each party, which officials at hundreds of caucuses across the state will use to report out results from individual precincts to party headquarters for tabulation.
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The arrangement has aroused the suspicions of aides to Sanders, who regularly warn that corporate power and the billionaire class are trying to hijack democracy. Pete D’Alessandro, who is running the Iowa portion of Sanders’ campaign, questioned the motives of the major multinational corporation in an interview with MSNBC: “You'd have to ask yourself why they'd want to give something like that away for free.”
The Sanders campaign has built their own reporting system to check the results from the official Microsoft-backed app. It has trained its precinct captain on using the app, which is designed to be as user friendly as possible, and the campaign will also staff a hotline system as further redundancy.
“It's just a way that our folks can have an app that we trust to get the numbers to us in a timely fashion,” D’Alessandro said. “I'm always going to be more for sure on the stuff that my people had control over the entire time... If there are any problems, we can spot them right away.”
Other Sanders aides noted that Microsoft employees have donated several hundred thousand dollars to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton over her career, and questioned why the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t partner with a software company based in Iowa.
Asked why the company is interested in the caucuses, Microsoft said they are committed to creating a fair and impartial platform. “Microsoft is providing technology and services solely to administer and facilitate a neutral, accurate, efficient reporting system for the caucuses," the company said in a statement to MSNBC. "We are proud to partner with the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties to ensure accurate results on caucus night."
Independent reporting systems like the one Sanders’ campaign built are not uncommon. Clinton’s campaign is also preparing its own backup reporting system involving an app and telephone hotline component, according to a campaign aide.
Some Iowa Democrats have raised concerns about the state party’s readiness for the critical caucuses on Monday. As many as 200 precinct-level positions were still unfilled as off a few days ago, and several campaigns have complained about late-stage caucus-site location changes.
D’Alessandro said he has complete confidence in the Iowa Democratic Party, and “absolute trust on integrity,” explaining that his own issue was with Microsoft only.
Sam Lau, a spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party, defended the partnership with Microsoft. "The Iowa Democratic Party has always believed in the importance of new election technology, and we have been proud to partner with both the Republican Party of Iowa and Microsoft on our new 2016 Iowa Caucuses reporting app that has been in the works for more than a year. 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. The app will help make caucus reporting more efficient, accurate and secure, and we look forward to seeing it in action on caucus night," he said in a statement.
Skepticism about corporate involvement in election systems is nothing new. During the 2004 presidential election, for instance, there was widespread suspicion on the left about Diebold voting machines.
With Sanders supporters already suspicious of meddling from forces they see as hostile to their candidate, including the Democratic Party and corporations, the backup system could help tamp down questions and conspiracy theories if results are contested.
This story has been updated with a statement from Iowa Democratic Party.