IOWA CAUCUS 2020

In Nevada, a last-minute scramble to make tech work to prevent repeat of Iowa Caucus problems

State's Democratic caucusing set for Saturday

Nevada voters stand in line for early voting in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (Washington Post)
Nevada voters stand in line for early voting in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — As early voting came to a close here Tuesday evening, a small group of caucus volunteers waited in the parking lot of a dimly lighted strip mall to get a hands-on demonstration of the software they would use to tally votes during Saturday’s Democratic caucus.

“This will not be like Iowa,” one of the volunteers said defiantly, referring to the caucus process in that state roiled by technological mishaps.

She said she was determined to learn how the software worked and avert any embarrassing glitches. She asked not to be named for fear of upsetting party officials here.

As Democratic presidential hopefuls campaign here, the role of technology has hung like a cloud over the process that will help determine the party’s nominee.

Nevada’s place early on in the presidential nominating process is a point of pride in this fast-growing Western state. And everyone from volunteers to party officials to ordinary voters is hoping it doesn’t turn into an embarrassment.

Nevada’s Democratic Party, which runs the caucus, had planned to use software developed by the same company behind Iowa’s botched caucus app. Nevada had less than three weeks to put a new system in place, a rush to the finish line that also contributed to Iowa’s problems.

The party now plans to distribute roughly 2,000 iPads equipped with Cisco Systems security software designed to allow corporations to monitor employee devices.

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The Apple tablets have a single icon on the home page that connects, via cellular data, to customized Google Cloud software that volunteers saw in person for the first time in Democratic Party offices in the Las Vegas Strip mall.

Technology came to the forefront of the country’s democratic process after the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, when an app designed by a company called Shadow was used to calculate vote totals malfunctioned, delaying results and opening the door to conspiracy theories, voter distrust and allegations of conflicts of interests.

Under the best circumstances, tallying caucus results has been known to stump some volunteers, according to experts and campaign staffers. Rather than filling out ballots, caucus goers show support for candidates at in-person gatherings, during a multistep process that can involve changing allegiances and deal making.

Candidates without enough support are deemed “non-viable,” and supporters of those candidates can back someone else or form coalitions with other non-viable candidates.

When it’s over, the number of supporters in each group determines how many delegates are awarded for each candidate.

Since at least 2008, campaign officials have used technology to try to better manage the process. But because of the transient nature of national politics, the people who have worked on building technological tools have come and gone, taking their expertise and even their software with them.

Every four years, campaigns and party officials essentially start from scratch, according to people who have worked for the Democratic Party during caucuses.

During the Nevada caucuses in 2008, the Obama campaign created its own caucus calculator using Microsoft Excel, according to two people who worked on the campaign.

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The software, which did the caucus math, was used to correct the vote in several precincts where errors were made, they said, and that process resulted in Obama winning more delegates than he otherwise would have gotten without the oversight.

But the Obama campaign’s know-how and strategy was never passed on to Democratic officials at the state or national level, those people said.

“A lot of people who developed that stuff are at Uber and Airbnb now,” said one of those people, who is now working for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s campaign. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.

Paper results will be used as the official tally in Nevada, the state’s Democratic Party has said. Maggie MacAlpine, co-founder of Nordic Innovation Labs, a consultancy focused on election security, praised the party for creating paper redundancies to guard against manipulation of results.

Election officials should use reasonable restraint when it comes to technology, MacAlpine said.

“We’re always advocating a return to paper,” she said.

Election technology is the one place, she said, where the more the more tech-savvy people are, the more they tend to advise against the use of technology. The tools needed to secure online elections are “not even in their infancy yet,” she said.

This year, the Nevada caucus brings additional challenges. In an effort to increase voter turnout after long lines and confusion in 2016, the party offered early voting as an alternative to the caucusing scheduled for Saturday morning.

Rather than caucus, voters could rank three to five candidates by preference. Those results would later be incorporated into the Saturday caucus.

Turnout for early voting was high, nearly matching the entire voter turnout for the 2016 Democratic Caucuses, according to Nevada Democrats, and lines at early voting sites stretched along sidewalks through Tuesday evening.

LATEST RESULTS: Delegate counts, and first and final alignments

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