Nevada is trying very hard to not pull an Iowa
Posted February 18, 2020 5:02 p.m. EST
CNN — How hard can this whole democracy thing be?
Less than a month after issues with a vote tabulation app spoiled the Iowa caucuses, fallout from Nevada's decision to abandon an app made by the same company has raised legitimate fears that the caucuses there will be spoiled as well.
It's not helping that campaigns are being told to contact early caucusgoers who did not complete their ballots.
Every vote is always supposed to count in American democracy. But in this race, where no candidate has jumped to a lead after Iowa and New Hampshire, every vote counts even more.
Organizers in the Nevada Democratic Party having to call an audible weeks before the caucuses touched a nerve on an early primary and caucus system that, when you look carefully, is not entirely democratic.
Caucuses are not a system where a voter anonymously picks their candidate, pushes a button and leaves. They require a time commitment at a community event and a public declaration of support, which makes them feel like a relic of a time when political party officials had a lot more control over who would become their nominee.
With more candidates trying to appeal to independent voters, the primary system has had to adapt and become more open, not just for the party faithful but for anyone who wants to take part.
Just four states and several territories will hold caucuses this year, a sign that the format has fallen out of favor as the party pushes state-run primaries. But each state makes their own primary rules. It just so happens that two caucus states go first and third, so they play an extremely important role in the process.
This year, for the first time, Nevada's Democrats have allowed early caucusing and the response has been overwhelming. More than 26,000 people showed up to cast their preference during the first two of four days of early caucusing; that's more a quarter of the total that caucused in 2016, although turnout that year was down from 2008.
But the early caucus ballots have proven problematic since one hallmark of a caucus is the reallocation of support for candidates who do not get much support on Election Day.
Not all caucusgoers selected the necessary three candidates required by the party, or because they didn't sign the ballot, which could invalidate a ballot, although these people could return to caucus Saturday. Campaigns have been told to contact people with invalid ballots.
The party has admitted to a "small percentage of folks" not completing the ballots, but has not publicly said how many ballots that is, although a party spokeswoman said on CNN after the party addressed the issue on a conference call with concerned Democratic campaigns about the issue.
And they have a right to be concerned. The margin of victory in Iowa and New Hampshire was razor-thin -- less than a percentage point in each state. Iowa is, ahem, still in the midst of a recanvass.
The Nevada party spokesperson promised, during an interview on CNN, that there will be results on caucus day.
"Will you be able to report a result by the end of the night? That could sound like a ridiculous question but after Iowa it is not so ridiculous," said CNN's Kate Bolduan.
"Sure, absolutely," said the spokesperson Molly Forgey. "Like I said, our number one priority is getting the process right, making sure results are accurate, that's our number one priority and we know, we understand everyone wants to know the outcome of the Nevada caucus because we play a crucial role in this primary as the first diverse state to make its voice heard. That's our priority right now."
Her confidence belies the concerns of some Iowa Democrats whose volunteer work will be the backbone of the caucuses on Saturday.
The Nevada State Democratic Party is holding webinar trainings for volunteers throughout the week leading up to caucus day, February 22.
A caucus volunteer invited CNN to sit in on one of the training sessions Monday where we learned more about the caucus calculator that will be used to help tabulate early votes and caucus day votes.
Precinct chairs will use three different tools to track the caucus process: a math sheet, a math poster and the new iPad "Caucus Calculator." Another complicating factor is the complicated math that will meld the preferences of early caucusgoers and their three ranked choices with the people who show up in person Saturday.
The party is now relying on a Google form and text messages for the official vote count. The math sheet will be used as a paper back-up to the calculator. When caucusing is finished, precinct chairs will text a picture of the completed math sheet, after it displayed at the caucuse site, to phone number monitored by the state party.
Precinct chairs will report results several ways: calling the state party, sending a photo of the completed caucus math sheets and by submitting the physical math sheet to site leaders, something designed to provide redundancy and backup.
But while the training viewed by CNN provided volunteers with a detailed description of how it will work on caucus day, it did not show a working version of the caucus calculator. It merely showed screen shots of how it will work. This might explain why the party is saying volunteers have seen the calculator, while the volunteers are complaining that they haven't had a chance to actually use it. Both seem to be true. And it's easy to see why this is making the volunteers nervous.
One volunteer CNN spoke to, Seth Morrison, was not as confident as Forgey.
Asked, "if you were a betting man, what are the odds things go terribly wrong on Saturday?"
"Probably 60% chance that there will still be problems," he said, although he noted things were looking up since before the party began training the volunteers. "But it was an 80 percent chance yesterday."
There is zero chance President Donald Trump will face any opposition in Nevada since the state GOP joined a few other states in a sign of solidarity with Trump and just decided not to hold a caucus this year. Yes, he would have won. But deciding not to hold an election because you think you know how it will turn out is not, generally, how the system is supposed to work. Especially when there is a Republican running against Trump, as there is in the form of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.