Nevada Democrats are trying to avoid repeating the Iowa caucus debacle — here's how

Key Points
  • Democrats in Nevada are seeking to tamp down on fears that their caucuses Saturday will be a repeat of the botched contest in Iowa that kicked off the primary election season earlier in the month.
  • The state party has said it will not use the failed app that forced Iowans to tabulate votes by hand and marred the results-reporting process.
  • Instead of an app, the party will use a "Caucus Calculator" tool in order to add up vote totals and combine day-of voting with votes cast at early voting sites.
People wait in line to vote on the final day of early voting for the upcoming Nevada Democratic presidential caucus on February 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mario Tama | Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Democrats in Nevada seek to tamp down fears their Saturday caucus will repeat the botched contest in Iowa, which kicked off presidential primary season earlier in the month.

The state party said it will not use a mobile application that failed in Iowa, forcing a hand-count of votes and marring that state's reporting process for results.

Instead of an app, Nevada's Democrats will use a "Caucus Calculator" tool to add up votes and combine Election Day ballots with votes cast at early voting sites.

The Nevada caucuses started with four days of early voting between Feb. 15 and Feb. 18 at more than 80 sites across Nevada. Regular voting begins at noon local time Saturday at more than 250 locations. About 75,000 Nevadans have cast their ballots during early voting. The majority of early vote participants were first-time caucus participants.

IPads and beefed-up call centers

The party wrote in a memo distributed to the campaigns last week that the calculator will be user-friendly and only used on iPads purchased by the party and provided to trained precinct chairs.

Unlike the app used in Iowa, the calculator tool will not require volunteers to download anything onto their personal devices. Voting will be reported via a "secure hotline" and verified using either paper sheets hand-delivered in a secure envelope or the calculator tool.

A representative for Nevada Democrats told reporters Tuesday the Caucus Calculator is not new technology but is a tool they have used in the past that relies on a Google Sheets document tailored to the needs of the caucuses.

The party has also contracted with a call center with 200 trained employees to process results when they come in, according to NBC News. In Iowa, calls were handled by volunteers, who were quickly overwhelmed. The party said the situation was exacerbated by trolls who apparently supported President Donald Trump calling the hotline.

State and national Democrats say they are taking precautions to ensure that Nevada's caucuses go smoothly.

"Nevada Democrats have learned important lessons from Iowa, and we're confident they're implementing these best practices into their preparations," Democratic National Committee communications director Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. "We've deployed staff to help them across the board, from technical assistance to volunteer recruitment."

'Feeling comfortable' in Nevada

Campaign organizers and volunteers in Las Vegas have expressed optimism that Saturday will unfold at least better than Iowa's caucuses did.

"I am feeling comfortable," said Donna West, the chair of the Clark County Democratic Party who will serve as a site lead on Saturday. She said she had been meeting with precinct chairs for a month and will be meeting with them again hours before the caucuses begin to walk through everything.

Election experts caution that even the best-run caucuses sometimes run into trouble and that Nevada is in a particularly tough spot because the Iowa situation forced them to rethink their processes.

"I will praise them if it's not worse than Iowa. I don't think it will be worse than Iowa," said Rebecca Gill, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "But I would be surprised if it's seamless. It's a kind of complicated dance that they are just developing as they go."

Attention was particularly focused on Nevada after the Iowa caucuses because the state had been expected to use the same malfunctioning app, manufactured by the progressive digital infrastructure agency Shadow, Inc. The Nevada Democratic Party paid Shadow nearly $60,000 last year.

But the state party said a day after the caucuses in Iowa that it would not use the app, and the DNC vowed that the app would not be used "anywhere else during the primary election process."

More scrutiny by federal officials

The state party has said that it consulted with Google, the Department of Homeland Security and the Democratic National Committee on their process. Though the party has said very little about its testing process, the spokesperson said that it was reviewed by third-party experts as well.

Allowing a review by DHS is another welcome change from the Iowa process. DHS said earlier this month it had offered to vet the Iowa application, but Democratic officials in Iowa denied knowledge of DHS' offer.

The Government Accountability Office slammed the Department of Homeland Security just three days after the Iowa caucuses for failing to release a formal plan for security during the 2020 campaign.

"Election primaries begin in February. However, CISA has not yet completed its strategic and operations plans to help state and local officials safeguard the 2020 elections or documented how it will address prior challenges," the GAO said. CISA is the Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency, a division of DHS.

The reporting failures in Iowa ultimately prompted Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price to resign and have raised questions about the integrity of the final results.

Read more: Iowa caucus: Here's a map of precincts where the data appear to be irregular

The NBC News Decision Desk did not declare a winner of the race, and NBC News, CNBC and other outlets independently uncovered a number of apparent inconsistencies in the data.

The Iowa Democratic Party agreed to conduct a partial recanvass, or audit, of the results following requests from two of the candidates, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who both appeared to be vying for the lead.

The recanvass narrowed the gap between Buttigieg and Sanders in the count of State Delegate Equivalents, or the traditional method of declaring a winner. Both candidates subsequently called for a partial recount involving 63 precincts. A recount is a more thorough method of verifying accurate results.

— Tucker Higgins reported from Las Vegas, and Kate Fazzini reported from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Here's how the voting tech at the Nevada caucus is going to work
Here's how the voting tech at the Nevada caucus is going to work