As Democratic presidential hopefuls campaign in this fast-growing Western state, the role of technology has hung like a cloud over the process that will help determine the party’s nominee. Nevada’s place early on in the presidential nominating process is a point of pride, and everyone from volunteers to party officials to ordinary voters is hoping it doesn’t turn into an embarrassment.
Nevada’s Democratic Party, which runs the caucuses, had planned to use software developed by the same company behind Iowa’s botched caucus app. When those plans were scrapped, Nevada had less than three weeks to put a new system in place, a rush to the finish line that also contributed to Iowa’s problems.
The party now plans to distribute roughly 2,000 iPads equipped with Cisco Systems security software designed to allow corporations to monitor employee devices. The Apple tablets have a single icon on the home page that connects, via cellular data, to customized Google Cloud software that volunteers saw in person for the first time in Democratic Party offices in the Las Vegas strip mall.
Technology came to the forefront of the country’s democratic process after the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, when an app designed by a company called Shadow that was used to calculate vote totals malfunctioned, delaying results and opening the door to conspiracy theories, voter distrust and allegations of conflicts of interests.
Even under the best circumstances, the tallying of caucus results has been known to stump some volunteers, according to experts and campaign staffers. Rather than filling out ballots, caucus-goers show support for candidates at in-person gatherings, during a multistep process that can involve changing allegiances and strategic alliances. Candidates without enough support are deemed “nonviable,” and supporters of those candidates can back someone else or form coalitions with other nonviable candidates. When it’s over, the number of supporters in each group determines how many delegates are awarded for each candidate.
Since at least 2008, campaign officials have used technology to try to better manage the process. But because of the transient nature of national politics, the people who have worked on building technological tools come and go, taking their expertise and even their software with them. Every four years, campaigns and party officials essentially start from scratch, according to people who have worked for the Democratic Party during caucuses.
During the Nevada caucuses in 2008, the Obama campaign created its own caucus calculator using Microsoft Excel, according to two people who worked on the campaign. The software, which did the caucus math, was used to correct the vote in several precincts where errors were made, they said, and that process resulted in then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) winning more delegates than he otherwise would have gotten without the oversight.
But the Obama campaign’s know-how and strategy was never passed on to Democratic officials at the state or national level, they said. “A lot of people who developed that stuff are at Uber and Airbnb now,” said one of them, who is now working for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s campaign. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Paper results will be used as the official tally in Nevada, the state’s Democratic Party has said. Maggie MacAlpine, co-founder of Nordic Innovation Labs, a consultancy focused on election security, praised the party for creating paper redundancies to guard against manipulation of results.
Election officials should use reasonable restraint when it comes to technology, MacAlpine said. “We’re always advocating a return to paper,” she said. Election technology is the one place, she said, where the more tech-savvy people are, the more they tend to advise against the use of technology. The tools needed to secure online elections are “not even in their infancy yet,” she said.
This year, the Nevada caucuses bring additional challenges. In an effort to increase voter turnout after long lines and confusion in 2016, the party offered early voting as an alternative to the caucusing scheduled for Saturday morning.
Rather than caucus, voters could rank three to five candidates by preference. Those results would later be incorporated into Saturday’s caucuses. Turnout for early voting was high, nearly matching the entire voter turnout for the 2016 Democratic caucuses, according to Nevada Democrats, and lines at early-voting sites stretched along sidewalks through Tuesday evening.
Michael Roybal, a 31-year-old phlebotomist in Las Vegas, said that when he saw the debacle in Iowa on the news, he decided to vote early. He waited more than two hours to cast his vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a local library Tuesday, where billionaire candidate Tom Steyer had paid for a five-person mariachi band and a free taco stand to entertain early voters. “The caucus sounds like a mess,” Roybal said. “I think a normal primary would be fine.”
But the early voting created a new problem for caucus volunteers: more complicated math, with lots of variables around which candidates will make it through to the final tally.
On Jan. 11, hundreds of volunteers poured into Centennial High School in Las Vegas for a training seminar on the new app developed by Shadow, a Colorado company led by veterans of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that received funding from Democratic political organizations. In the school’s all-purpose room, Democratic Party officials instructed the volunteers to download the app to their phones. The app, they said, would be used by the volunteers to count and submit vote counts at the election.
Almost immediately, problems arose, according to three people who attended the training. About half the people in attendance were unable to download the app. Others were able to download it, but it wouldn’t open on their phones. The app was not available through Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. Rather, installing it first required the installation of another app.
Donna West, a retired civil servant who has a dog-sitting business and is also chair of the Clark County chapter of the Nevada Democrats, said half of the problems that day were due to “user error,” and about half were because of technological glitches. “We discovered we had volunteers who don’t have smartphones, and so they don’t use apps at all,” West said.
Eventually, the staffers stopped trying to get the app to work, said Seth Morrison, a volunteer site leader for the caucuses who attended the meeting. “By the end of the day, they declared failure,” he said. But the party officials weren’t giving up on the malfunctioning app. Instead, they vouched for the vendor and said it would be fixed before the caucuses just over a month later.
On Feb. 3, as West watched the Iowa debacle unfold on television, she said she was surprised to hear news reports that caucus workers there had not attempted to download the apps onto their phones until the day of voting.
Soon after Iowa’s problems, the Nevada Democratic Party announced that its app was also developed by Shadow and that it would no longer use the app.
Shadow’s CEO, Gerard Niemira, declined to comment.
For many volunteers, that was the first they heard that Iowa and Nevada had planned to use the same software vendor to conduct the caucuses.
Now that the Democrats had scrapped the Shadow app, Nevada Democrats scrambled to find a replacement, rather than put the burden on volunteers to do the complicated math by hand.
On Feb. 8, the volunteers again filed into a local high school — Western — to be trained on how to carry out the Nevada caucuses. The volunteers were broken up into groups for mock caucuses, using the names of Harry Potter characters, where they were walked through the process.
But there was one part of the training that none of the volunteers got. They were told they would be provided with iPads and customized software that would help them tally the vote totals. The software was still being developed, they were told.
According to Morrison and the other precinct leader, state officials would not answer basic questions about how the app would work, or who developed it. “Every time it came to using the tool, they’d say, ‘We’ll tell you about it later,’ ” Morrison said. Officials told volunteers that revealing too much information about the software would be risky, because it would give a head start to hackers, who might try to exploit it and manipulate the caucuses. This strategy, known as “security through obscurity,” is generally discouraged by the cybersecurity industry.
It turns out the party had decided to develop the software in-house using Google Forms, a fact the party revealed to volunteers Tuesday evening.
Google spokeswoman Katie Wattie said the company has provided customer service support to Nevada’s Democratic Party, as it would for any paying customer, but the search engine giant has not dispatched personnel to Nevada to offer extra help.
The Cisco software, called Meraki, could also help Nevada officials remotely monitor signs of suspicious activity. Cisco declined to comment.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that the volunteers had a chance to see the software in person. In Las Vegas, the party held a voluntary training session at what appeared to be a temporary office in a strip mall. The lights in the office were dark, leading some volunteers to wonder whether they were in the right place.
When a staffer for the Nevada Democrats showed up at around 6:30 p.m., five volunteers entered and sat around a brown table with florescent lighting. One brought chips and guacamole for the group to share.
The staffers, who later shared what they were shown in the meeting, said the caucus iPad had only a single icon with the letters CC, for caucus calculator. When opened, the app asked for login credentials, which would be written down on a folder given to staffers.
At each step of the way, volunteers are instructed to write the results down on a piece of paper and on a large poster that will hang in the room during the caucus. The results on paper, and not the app itself, will be used for the official results, the state party has said.
When the volunteers enter the vote totals from the room into the iPad on caucus day, the software will automatically adjust those totals based on the number of early votes that were cast in that precinct.
If the app or iPad malfunctions for some reason, or there’s no Internet connection, volunteers will have to do everything by hand. If that happens, they’ll be required to open an envelope containing a spreadsheet with all the early-vote totals. The envelope will contain detailed instructions on how to allocate the votes, the volunteers were told.
On Thursday, volunteer site leaders responsible for overseeing the caucuses arrived in a Las Vegas office park to pick up cardboard file boxes with the iPads and other voting materials. Before leaving, they were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to two of the volunteers.