The phone bank ringing nonstop as 40 volunteers struggle with increasing desperation to keep up with the deluge.
On the other end of the phone are well-meaning Iowans with serious questions, news stations demanding updates, pranksters clogging the lines, and, most importantly, precinct captains from across the state attempting in vain to report the results of their local caucuses.
The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses have so far avoided the problems of the previous cycle — long lines, overcrowded polling places — but the system is crumbling behind the scenes. And quickly.
The call centre volunteers at the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus night headquarters — the so-called “boiler room” — were told a few days earlier to bring books, puzzles, and games to a brief training. Party leaders had no idea they’d be busy for hours.
They are now grappling with waves of panic and frustration over their immediate task: gathering Iowa caucus results and relaying them to the waiting world, bathed in the glare of a cold conference room’s fluorescent lights.
Posters on the wall list the types of issues that callers report — “chairperson not present,” “delegate misallocation,” and “where is my caucus location?”
However, in the midst of the frenzy, the effort is abandoned — the cascade of tick marks next to “app problems” dwarfing all others. Volunteers had never seen or been trained to use the app, which was designed in a hurry to allow supposedly easy tabulation and transmission of caucus night results.
When precinct captains can get through the clogged phone lines, volunteers start an on-the-fly paper-and-pen filing system for the complicated and arcane caucus math that has baffled even the most ardent caucus fans for decades.
If the results don’t make sense or the numbers don’t add up, volunteers place the records in a cardboard box with the words “still f—-ed” written in Sharpie across the side.
The “still f—-ed” box is quickly filling up.
“Those people in that room know what they’re doing. “They’re intelligent people,” one volunteer remarks at the time. “However, none of them had been trained.” So they’re all just making stuff up as they go along.”
The group had gone through tabletop drills to practise for a variety of disaster scenarios. There are plans in place in case Des Moines loses power unexpectedly, or if Russians hack into their computers.
But what if the new app fails and everyone with an interest in the future of the American presidency floods the backup phone lines instead?