Nevada’s Confusing, Ever-Shifting Vote-Counting Process

The use of a ‘tool’ rather than an app has not calmed fears of another bungled caucus night.

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Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Following the app-induced chaos in Iowa, 2020’s first caucus, scrutiny has been directed at Nevada, which is the only other early state that has a caucus rather than a primary. The Nevada Democratic Party has yet to calm fears of another bungled process with its actions over the past week, particularly given the lack of transparency on its organization and training.

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, it was revealed that the Nevada Democratic Party commissioned its own vote-calculation app from Shadow, Inc., the same vendor that produced the failed Iowa app. Since that revelation, the state party rejected going forward with Shadow and then switched away from an app-based solution entirely. In the 19 days between the Iowa Caucus and the Nevada Caucus, the Nevada Dems have completely changed their voting procedures. Twice.

“I’m empathetic as a former deputy secretary of state in Pennsylvania,” says Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a non-partisan and non-profit voting-rights organization. “It would be better if they [the Nevada Democratic Party] could reassure folks that they actually do have this in hand.”

Three days after the Iowa Caucus, the Nevada Democratic Party said it would not use any apps at all. Communications Director Molly Forgey told The Nevada Independent that the reorganization was meant to make the caucus “secure, efficient, and simple.”

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On February 8, the presidential campaigns were told that the Nevada caucus sites would now use a “tool,” which would be pre-loaded onto iPads at the causes sites, and not connected to the internet, to record results. Unlike the original app, which was commissioned for $60,000, the tool would supposedly work more like a calculator. But aside from the lack of internet connectivity, the party did not explain the difference between the failed app and the new tool. It also did not disclose who made it.

Schneider questions how the results will be transferred from caucus sites to the state party for official counting, whether there are back up paper ballots for a verifiable paper trail, and whether the party has enough resources and volunteers to run the caucus sites with all of its complexities. She’s also concerned about training volunteers on the new tool. “Technology needs proper planning, proper testing and proper training. Those are the key ingredients,” says Schneider. That was missing in Iowa amid the hastily produced app, and despite early warning signs it seems Nevada was headed down the same disastrous course.

Unlike in primary states, caucuses are organized by the party and volunteers, who are supposed to be trained by party-members well in advance of Election Day. However, in the months leading up to the Nevada caucuses, site volunteers were shown a beta-version of the app that showed error messages. A volunteer told FiveThirtyEight that the initial training focused exclusively on the faulty app. Ruben Murillo Jr., a precinct chair in Nevada, said “They never did address what to do if the app wasn’t working.”

Early reports of the new tool training didn’t suggest anything has improved. This week, another caucus site volunteer told The Nevada Independent that there was confusion and frustration at the training: “We got very little information. It was just a preview. There was no hands on.”

Unlike Iowa’s app, the Nevada iteration was also supposed to be responsible for much more than the in-person caucus results. Nevada hosts a live caucus on February 22 as well as early voting caucuses in 80 locations, from February 15 to February 18. Eligible voters could go to any early voting site in their home county, and would be counted in the particular precinct where they are registered. The initial app that the Nevada Democratic Party commissioned was supposed to seamlessly integrate the first votes along with realignments, meaning that voters would rank their candidate preferences and then get folded into the decisions made on caucus day.

But just days before early voting begins, the state party shifted again. The Nevada Dems now say that they will use scannable paper ballots at early-voting sites. The ballots will be linked to a voter ID number through a Google Forms check-in, so the ballots can be sent to the appropriate precincts on caucus night. The tool would still be used to integrate early votes with the in-person caucus process. But there is now no indication on the procedure for how the early voting will be counted in the caucus results, and even less indication that volunteers are being trained to handle both the early votes and the in-person caucus tool.

The Nevada Dems released a sample of the early voting preference cards on January 22, with forms available for the first time in Tagalog, Spanish, and English. It is unclear if those language options will all be available on the new scannable paper ballots or the new calculating tool; the party has described the voting preference cards as a “backup” to the Google Forms check-in.

Forgey, the communications director, said that all options were on the table after abandoning Shadow’s app. In the short time available for retraining and reorganization, however, the party settled on iPads at every site, instead of phoning in results and counting votes by hand.

“Our main objective is running the most expansive, transparent, and accessible caucus that ensures Nevadans voices are heard,” Forgey said in a statement to CBS News.

The Prospect attempted to reach the Nevada Democratic Party numerous times by email and by phone. Chair William McCurdy II, First Vice Chair Marty McGarry, Second Vice Chair Sam Liberman, Treasurer Jan Churchill, Executive Director Alana Mounce, and Communications Director Molly Forgey, all either did not respond to calls and emails or refused to be interviewed.

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