Nevada Democrats unveil new caucus plan after Iowa chaos

FILE – In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, voters head to the polls at the Enterprise Library in Las Vegas. Nevada’s Democratic Party has announced new paper-based balloting for its early vote starting Saturday as it scrambles to reconfigure plans and avoid tech problems and reporting delays that mired Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. The party dumped its original plan to have people cast early caucus votes with an app downloaded on iPads. (AP Photo/Joe Buglewicz)

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada Democrats have released a revamped plan for the Feb. 22 caucuses, adding measures intended to avoid a repeat of problems that ensnared Iowa’s vote. But they will still rely on a complex process involving internet-connected iPads that is being rolled out to caucus organizers a little more than a week before voting.

In a memo released Thursday, Nevada Democrats said there will be a two-step process for reporting results consisting of submissions made by phone and electronically. Caucus organizers will be relying on off-the-shelf Google data-management software to calculate and submit results electronically. The Google app and iPads are trusted commercial tech tools — a contrast to the newly developed app used in Iowa.

“In choosing the best path forward our guiding principles have been security, efficiency and simplicity,” the party’s executive director, Alana Mounce, said in the memo.

Election experts have warned that deploying new technology and making last-minute changes to the process without sufficient training and field testing increase confusion and the possibility of problems. They have also raised concerns about a lack of transparency over who is helping party officials develop some of the technology being used, which prevents scrutiny of their qualifications and security experience.

“Very much like Iowa, this sounds like a tremendous amount of information coming relatively late in the game for fallible human beings in a complex environment,” said Eddie Perez, an election technology expert with the OSET Institute, a nonprofit that promotes reliable voting solutions. “And that creates risk for another process breakdown.”

The stakes are high for Democrats after the meltdown of the Iowa caucuses and amid heightened concern of election security following Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential contest. As in Iowa, Nevada’s caucuses are run by the state party and not state and local election officials.

Nevada Republicans do not have caucuses this year.

The state party had to scramble to rework its process after jettisoning software made by the same developer whose mobile reporting app failed in Iowa. State party officials said they have been consulting with the Democratic National Committee, the Department of Homeland Security and technical experts.

Party officials emphasized that no custom applications were built and instead the process relies on “off the shelf technology from Google” connected with forms and spreadsheets for convenience. They also said they alerted Google that they planned to use its programs.

In recent days, volunteers who will be leading the Nevada caucuses had raised concerns that key information about the process had yet to be released and that there had been no hands-on training with the iPads they will be expected to use. In addition, they said there had been no opportunities to practice using what was then described as a “tool” for calculating results.

It now appears the “tool” will be a preprogrammed Google form incorporated with information on early votes cast for each respective precinct, so they can be added to the in-person caucus. A paper backup of those early votes will also be provided to the caucus organizer for each precinct.

The caucus organizer will use the Google form to enter information about how many people were caucusing at each precinct and candidate tallies for each round of voting and then to submit the final delegate totals. If the iPad or Google form fails, the state party will rely on a paper worksheet that every caucus organizer will be required to complete.

In addition, the state party plans to have multiple hotlines available, including ones that will not be released publicly to ensure those dedicated to caucus organizers are not overwhelmed like the ones in Iowa on the night of the caucuses.

The state party emphasized that they were “actively testing” the reporting process and will continue training volunteers.

Early voting, a complicated step that Iowa did not attempt, has added to Nevada’s challenges. There’s uncertainty about how early voters would be included in later stages of the caucus process. That was not addressed in Thursday’s memo.

To send results electronically, the party-owned iPads must be connected to the internet — whether through cellular network or local WiFi. This presents a security concern that someone could access the iPads and interfere or manipulate data transfers.

The state party did not detail what security measures are in place to protect these data transmissions, including the use of passwords, multi-factor authentication and encryption. They said that WiFi available at all the caucus sites had been tested and that the iPads were 4G-enabled in the event WiFi failed.

It was also not clear what security measures were in place to physically protect the devices themselves.

Seth Morrison, who will be leading a caucus site at a high school in the metro Las Vegas area, said he was told site leaders would be picking up the iPads being used at their locations a few days before caucus day and would be responsible for keeping them safe. The site leaders would also be responsible for showing precinct chairs how to use the iPads when they get them on caucus day, he said.

Morrison said Thursday that he was pleased that more details were being released, but remained concerned about the last-minute push.

“I am very concerned how we are going to train so many volunteers in a short window, especially those volunteers less comfortable with technology,” Morrison said.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast,“Ground Game.”

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