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Will Iowa Caucus Fiasco Happen Here?

<p>Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters on Tuesday.</p>
Nati Harnik/AP

Precinct captain Carl Voss of Des Moines displays the Iowa Democratic Party caucus reporting app on his phone outside the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters on Tuesday.

It’s days later, and as of this recording, they still don’t know who is the outright Democratic caucus winner in Iowa.

But Nevada has its own caucus in less than two weeks--and the Democratic Party says it's using a smartphone app, too.

Can the same kind of disaster happen here?

Megan Messerly is a reporter for the Nevada Independent. She was in Iowa when disaster struck. 

She said that Nevada had contracted with the technology company that created the apps for Iowa but that Nevada Democratic Party officials have said they are not going to be using those apps during the caucus process.

Messerly explained that the party was going to use two apps - one for early voting, which starts February 15, and one for caucus day.

“Essentially, the party had developed an app for early voting," she said, "We have four days of early voting here in Nevada for the first time, February 15 through 18. There was going to be an app on iPads at early voting sites where people would actually go and choose their top five preferences in order and then that information would flow back to home precincts on caucus day to be there just as if they had been there in person.”

The caucus day app would be similar to the one used in Iowa, where precinct chairs would download the app and use it to count people who were there and the changing vote totals.

That was the plan. The question is: what will the party do now?

“I think the question is now do they switch entirely to just this paper, manual system given that we don’t have that many days until Nevada’s February 22 caucus,” Messerly said.

She believes it is unrealistic to develop a new app in the amount of time left.

Theresa Payton, a former White House chief information officer and founder of cybersecurity firm Fortalice Solutions, said there was no reason for the Iowa Democratic Party to forge ahead with an untested and unproven system. 

She noted that what is even more disappointing about the problems in Iowa is that people already think the election system is flawed and concerns about election security abound.

Payton said the app used in Iowa should have been put through the paces before be launched on caucus day.

“When we would implement new technology, you have to go out into the field no less than a week in advance and have the system’s engineers using the app in realtime in the field to see how it works,” she said.

She said if Nevada plans to use technology similar to what was used in Iowa it needs to be rigorously tested with a mock caucus in the field, using the same volume of information that is expected on caucus day. She also recommends they practice solving problems from individual precinct issues to system-wide disasters.

“Come up with that playbook and then have everyone rehearse it,” Payton said.

She said lessons need to be learned from Iowa.

“Regardless of which party you decide to vote for or if you’re an independent, democracy took a hit this week with Iowa. There’s a lot of lessons here,” she said.

Payton is concerned the fiasco in Iowa will lead people away from more technology in elections, which she says is not the right approach. She pointed out that in her own congressional district in North Carolina an election had to be rerun because of problems with paper absentee ballots.

“At some point, we do need to take the opportunity to integrate more technology into the process so more voters can more conveniently vote and so that we can secure our elections,” she said.

Convenience is one of the main reasons the Nevada Democratic Party decided to set up early voting for this year's caucus. However, Messerly said how those votes are going to work now that the app is not being used is not clear.

In a caucus process, if a candidate doesn't get a certain number of votes, he or she is not considered viable. Supporters of that candidate can then throw support to another candidate or become uncommitted. 

In the Nevada caucus plan, the idea was to use the app to calculate new totals, including early votes from people who weren't at the caucus site, as the votes changed. 

“I think the question now is how that process gets translated to a different system now that these apps aren’t going to be used. How is that calculation going to be quickly done in realtime and what’s the party’s plan for that? We haven’t yet heard from the party exactly how that is now supposed to work out.”

The whole fiasco in Iowa has brought up the question of whether caucuses should even be used anymore. Messerly said Nevada's political parties have talked about changing the process but there is a history to the process and some advantages.

“Democrats really like having a caucus. They feel like it is a party-building apparatus. It allows them to register new voters. They have same-day voter registration. It is supposed to be, at its best, this deliberative process. You get together in these rooms with your neighbors and you have these conversations and you talk about the party’s platform,” she said.

The disadvantage is a lot of people can't show up to a certain place at a certain time and spend an entire Saturday voting on a presidential candidate. 

The Nevada Democratic Party put out the following statement:

Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II released the below statement regarding the Iowa caucus:

"NV Dems can confidently say that what happened in the Iowa caucus last night will not happen in Nevada on February 22nd. We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus. We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward." 


Theresa Payton, former White House chief information officer and founder,  Fortalice SolutionsMegan Messerly, reporter, Nevada Independent


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.