Here’s What We Know About the Political Tech Company Behind the Iowa Caucus Snafu

The ominously named Shadow Inc. is responsible for the app that’s delayed Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest

Iowa citizens go to caucus, a first-in-the-nation process Getty
Headshot of Scott Nover

Iowa’s caucus system is typically confusing but a new mobile app has made things significantly more complicated—so much so that Iowa’s first-in-the-nation results won’t be released until officials manually check all of the results.

Last night, officials with the Iowa Democratic Party found reporting inconsistencies with the app which caucus officials were supposed to use to calculate and report results from their respective precincts. Users reportedly had trouble logging in and using the app, as well as trouble with cell phone service in certain parts of the state.

Mandy McClure, a spokesperson for the Iowa Democratic Party said this was “simply a reporting issue; the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion.”

Behind the troubled app, which is also set to be used in the Nevada caucuses later this month, is the ominously named Shadow Inc., a Denver-based for-profit company affiliated with the Democratic nonprofit ACRONYM. Tara McGowan, CEO, ACRONYM, told Axios this summer that the nonprofit has invested in a slew of companies like Shadow so they can build “better modern digital infrastructure within the progressive movement.”

In the ongoing fallout from Iowa and with results still pending, ACRONYM remains relatively mum.

Aside from their work in Iowa, Shadow Inc. provided various tech services to individual campaigns and state parties

“We, like everyone else, are eagerly awaiting more information from the Iowa Democratic Party,” spokesman Kyle Tharp said in an overnight statement. The statement mentioned that Shadow has other investors other than ACRONYM, though last January the nonprofit announced it had acquired the company Groundbase and were launching Shadow out of that transaction. ACRONYM, which has been called a “dark money” group by Open Secrets, also invests in Courier Newsroom and Virginia Dogwood, partisan news sites that have been criticized for aping local news operations. 

According to The New York Times, Shadow’s app was slapped together over the last couple of months and was not “properly tested at a statewide scale.” While the Iowa Democratic Party’s transactions with Shadow are not listed on public FEC filings, CNN reported that the Iowa Democratic Party paid more than $60,000 to Shadow in 2019.

“The secrecy around the app this year came from the Iowa Democratic Party, which asked that even its name be withheld from the public,” the Times reported. “According to a person familiar with the app, its creators had repeatedly questioned the need to keep it secret, especially from the Iowa precincts where it would be used.”

However, FEC listings are available for other transactions involving Shadow. The Nevada State Democratic Party—set to use the app in its Feb. 22 caucus—paid Shadow $58,000 in August. Additionally, the campaigns of Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the now-defunct campaign of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand each paid Shadow for various tech services. While the Biden campaign’s payments to Shadow are limited to one payment of $1,225.00 for text messaging services, the Buttigieg campaign has receipts totaling $42,500 for “software rights and subscriptions.” The state democratic parties in Texas and Wisconsin also paid Shadow for services in the past few months.

Shadow did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but tweeted a statement this afternoon.

Officials in Iowa said they will release caucus results after they finish “manually verifying all precinct results.” 

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price attributed Monday night’s snafu to a “coding error,” which has since been “identified and fixed.”

“The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately,” Price said.

In the odd limbo between caucusing and knowing the results, there has been no shortage of frustration with the process that delays a long-awaited indicator of momentum in the presidential primary process. And much of this consternation concerns transparency and accountability.

With Nevada on the horizon, there will be intense pressure to fix what went wrong in Iowa and make sure the path is clear so the results of two of the most significant states’ results aren’t corrupted, or their veracity doubted.

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.