The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats rushed to Nevada to offer caucus tech support. Some say they’ve been left in the dark. 

A voter casts a ballot on Tuesday, the final day of early voting for the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus. (Mario Tama/AFP/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The appeal to tech-savvy Democrats went out the week after technology crashed the Iowa caucuses — and days before the presidential nominating contest was set to touch down in Nevada.

The pitch was simple: “Your democracy needs you!”

That was the opening line of the email from Raffi Krikorian, the former chief technology officer at the Democratic National Committee. He sent the missive, obtained by The Washington Post, on Feb. 12, as Democrats in Iowa were still coming to grips with their bungled caucuses, thrown into disarray by a glitch in the software used to transmit results.

The debacle became a case study in how technology can mar an election.

How the Iowa caucuses came ‘crashing down,’ under the watchful eye of the DNC

Krikorian, who has done stints at Uber and Twitter, wanted to make sure it did not happen again when Democrats in Nevada convene at about 250 locations to weigh in on the nominating contest. So “a group of us,” he wrote, “are helping the Nevada Democratic Party to try to bring technical volunteers in to help with the Nevada Caucuses.”

He asked if people would travel to the Silver State, providing a Google sign-up sheet. Many were willing to assist. But some volunteers arrived on the eve of Saturday's caucuses with no instructions from the party — underscoring enduring organizational problems plaguing Democrats in the early days of their nominating contest. 

The recruitment drive also reveals the extent to which state parties responsible for running caucuses — rather than election officials who carry out the primaries — depend on volunteers to execute the high-stakes contests.

The task has become even more challenging since the DNC set transparency rules aimed at restoring public trust following allegations of bias in the 2016 primary. Those regulations require the reporting of raw vote totals in addition to the allocation of delegates, meaning volunteers are under heightened scrutiny to calculate and record an expanding web of numbers.

The dependence on volunteers in particular creates risks and accountability gaps, according to lawmakers and experts.

“The state party obviously can’t afford to hire a large number of computer professionals to do this,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the congressional subcommittee that oversees federal elections. “They’re going to rely on volunteers, and that may or may not be suitable.”

The reliance on volunteers is perhaps most apparent in the last-minute development of new technology to ease the tabulation and verification of results on caucus day in Nevada, after the state party ditched reporting tools built by the same start-up, Shadow Inc., used in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest.

The new tool, which relies on customized Google software loaded on about 2,000 party-purchased iPads, was devised by Josh Hendler, according to people familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Hendler, who has no formal role with the Nevada Democrats but previously served as director of technology at the DNC, declined through a spokeswoman for the state party to comment. He is now chief technology officer and head of product at Purpose, a New York-based “social impact agency.”

The software involves a 13-step Google Forms configuration for volunteers to fill out as they count caucus-goers, catalogue their preferences and award delegates. To log in, volunteer caucus leaders enter a precinct number and a password. Every piece of data they punch into the iPad will also be written by hand on a “caucus math poster” hung on the wall at precincts.

While the data from the iPads will feed back to the state party, Saturday’s results will also be called into a hotline staffed by a professional call center. In addition, volunteers are asked to text in a photo of a “caucus reporting sheet.” And preference cards completed by each caucus-goer will serve as an underlying paper trail if the results require more thorough verification.

The hotline number will not be made available until Saturday, in an effort to guard against its online circulation, which occurred in Iowa and gave rise to a flood of prank calls.

“This is the most important tool you have,” caucus leaders were instructed during a training webinar this week, in reference to the hotline.

In Nevada, a last-minute scramble to make election tech work

Where the calculator is most critical is in combining data from the state party’s four-day early voting period — introduced for the first time this year — with caucus-day counts, an intricate process of matching ranked-choice preferences completed ahead of time with live caucuses. Precinct leaders who choose to forgo use of the tool, or who are unable to operate it, will have to rely on printouts of early-vote preferences and amalgamate those results by hand with the numbers on caucus day.

“This is a labor-intensive but low-skill task,” said Greg Moody, a professor of information systems at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

While any digital tool has vulnerabilities, Moody added, the setup seemed relatively secure from what he had learned of it. The greater risk, he warned, may be human error, particularly because of the many different figures that volunteers are required to enter — a result of complex reporting requirements handed down by the DNC.

Volunteers in Nevada were able to test the iPads for the first time Tuesday, and additional training sessions occurred Thursday and Friday. The campaigns were also briefed on the tool Tuesday, and multiple aides said they were confident in the software.

Nevada Democrats consulted with DHS, as well as with “independent security and technical experts,” on the software, according to a memo from Alana Mounce, the executive director of the state party.

Ensuring that the iPads remain up and running was the key aim behind the tech support volunteer team assembled by Krikorian. By Monday, nearly 50 people had committed to pitching in, virtually all of them coming from out of state, according to a planning document obtained by The Post.

Among the groups activated were DigiDems, which embeds tech talent on Democratic campaigns, and Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for campaign-tech start-ups.

The document included suggestions for selling the opportunity to people, including “sense of mission (super hero vibes around democracy, liberty, voting).” Compensation was not one of the selling points.

“Unfortunately, we cannot reimburse you for your flights, accommodation, or food,” read an email update sent from “” on Monday. “This is a big ask for many people, and we are so grateful to those with the time and resources to be able to do this.”

Also on Monday, the DNC’s technology team took the reins on the volunteer recruitment, in a sign that the national party is girding itself for mishaps on Saturday. The party requested access to the Google Doc where planning was unfolding. And the DNC’s deputy chief technology officer, Kat Atwater, was identified as the “overall tech volunteer owner” in the document, which had set an aim of finding 250 volunteers, to match tech support one-to-one at sites across the state.

It was unclear if that goal had been met as of Friday, when party officials did not respond to requests for comment about the precise size of the effort, or whether the tech volunteers would undergo training. Some outside volunteers who had been mobilizing possible recruits stepped back as the party stepped in.

Some reinforcements arrived on Friday without directions about what to do. After landing in Las Vegas, one person wrote in an email that, "there has been no followup, we are here in Vegas, and don't know where to report for duty or what we should be doing to help."

Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the DNC, said the national party was recruiting volunteers “to help on all sorts of fronts, including tech.”

The DNC has about three dozen staff on the ground in Nevada, which marks an expansion of its footprint since Iowa.

“We’ve had a tech team here, we’ve had comms folks here, organizers,” Tom Perez, the chairman of the national party, said in a brief interview, adding that the party was “going to school on the lessons of Iowa.”

“We’re working hard to make sure we produce a caucus that is as low-tech as humanly possible while still maintaining efficiency,” Perez said.

Molly Forgey, a spokeswoman for the state party, said tech support at caucus sites will “help troubleshoot in real time.”

To identify themselves, the volunteer tech unit made T-shirts for Saturday.

“Ask me questions about tech!” reads the text on the blue garments.

With the number of volunteers still in flux, it is not clear how many caucus chairs will have that opportunity.

Tony Romm and David Weigel contributed to this report.