On February 6 2020, a number of news organizations reported that the chaos during (and following) the Iowa caucus was exacerbated by a flood of calls to an election night hotline made by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump to further confuse the evening’s issues:
Users on a politics-focused section of the fringe 4chan message board repeatedly posted the phone number for the Iowa Democratic Party, which was found by a simple Google search, both as screenshots and in plain text, alongside instructions.
“They have to call in the results now. Very long hold times being reported. Phone line being clogged,” one user posted at about 11 p.m. ET on Monday, three hours after the caucuses began.
“Uh oh how unfortunate it would be for a bunch of mischief makers to start clogging the lines,” responded another anonymous user, sarcastically.
Some users chimed in, posting alleged wait times on hold, imploring others to “clog the lines [and] make the call lads.”
Rob Sand, state auditor of Iowa, said he took results calls on Monday night as a volunteer and received an influx of calls that appeared to have been generated by a post on the internet.
“A lot of calls came in at a certain point where it was clear somebody had published the hotline number somewhere,” Sand said.
He cautioned that he could not speak for other people who were taking calls and said he did not get any calls that said they were from Trump supporters. He added that the system prevented people from reporting fake results.
However, reporting about the calls quickly spawned rumors that those same calls had caused the disruptions and chaos across the board, leading to delayed and confusing outcomes. Some reports about the issue lacked a number of elements, which further complicated the stories:
A hotline that was used by Iowa precinct chairs to report Democratic caucus results was reportedly flooded with calls on Monday from supporters of President Trump after the number was posted online, elongating the delays in the vote tallying process, sources told Bloomberg.
Sources told the news outlet that Ken Sagar, a state Democratic central committee member, told other party officials on a [February 5 2020] conference call that a high volume of people called in and expressed support for the president.
The hotline number was posted online after an app used by the party to count precinct votes largely malfunctioned, forcing the precinct chairs to try to use the hotline to report results.
Although the excerpt above noted that the “hotline number was posted online,” it didn’t say who might have shared it on the internet or why it was purportedly shared. That excerpt also described a “high volume” of calls by Trump supporters exacerbated the delay, but no indication of what might constitute a disruptive volume of calls nor how much of an effect the calls had.
Bloomberg.com’s reporting offered a slightly more detailed scenario. In that telling, “people posted photos of caucus paperwork” somewhere online — but Bloomberg didn’t say where it might have appeared or how visible it might have been:
Supporters of President Donald Trump flooded a hotline used by Iowa precinct chairs to report Democratic caucus results after the telephone number was posted online, worsening delays in the statewide tally, a top state Democrat told party leaders on a conference call Wednesday night.
According to two participants on the call, Ken Sagar, a state Democratic central committee member, was among those answering the hotline on caucus night and said people called in and expressed support for Trump. The phone number became public after people posted photos of caucus paperwork that included the hotline number, one of the people on the call said.
The phone call Wednesday night between the Iowa Democratic Party staff and state central committee, the party’s elected governing body, came as the party was still counting results.
Individual candidates like Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren had dedicated campaign hotline numbers tweeted by their supporters, but those didn’t seem to be the ones “flooded with calls from Trump supporters” in the news reports. Those numbers did not seem to be semi-private, as those caucusing for specific candidates were urged to call the numbers.
We searched for posts made to 4chan for posts using “515” (an area code in Iowa) between February 1 and February 6 2020. A number did appear in one of the threads. However, whether that number was “leaked” by photographs of paperwork was questionable. We copied the number on 4chan into the same time-restricted Google search and the top result was the official Iowa caucuses site:
We found the possible number, which was also public on the official Iowa caucus website.
It’s true that the Iowa’s Democratic caucus ended in chaos with no definitive numbers. It is also true that calls flooded a caucus hotline, jamming calls and delaying call-in reporters. However, much of the confusion and upset seems to have stemmed from issues around how the votes were gathered and reported during an already chaotic process in a year already flooded with disinformation and rumormongering, not from jammed telephone lines. We were unable to validate specific details about exposed caucus paperwork, specifically how much confusion the calls caused or exacerbated, or how much of an effect the calls had on the final outcome. Until we are able to find out more, we rate this claim Unknown.