Tech for Nevada caucuses under scrutiny after Iowa debacle

Experts and officials are raising concerns over the Nevada State Democratic Party plans to use a Google calculator uploaded to new iPads to tally results during their caucuses next week after the debacle in Iowa.

The party announced Thursday that it planned to use a custom Google calculator accessed through a “secure Google web form,” which will be uploaded to 2,000 newly purchased iPads to help tabulate votes, and that precinct leaders would also track votes via paper backup sheets. 

Alana Mounce, the Party’s executive director, wrote in a memo that the Party had consulted with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and outside security experts, and vowed that “we are confident in our backup plans and redundancies.”

But in the wake of the chaotic Iowa caucuses—where an app the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) used for counting malfunctioned and delayed results–officials have anxiety about Nevada’s plans.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that pushed through millions in election security funds for states last year, warned Thursday that “there can’t be anymore experiments” when it comes to caucus voting. 

“The caucuses need to learn that the integrity of the election process is on everybody’s mind now, and if you are going to use processes like this, you better have them vetted over and over again,” Quigley added. “I get the desire to be high-tech, but if you are going to do this process, you better get it right.”

Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security cybersecurity subcommittee, told The Hill that he thought the use of an iPad was “a terrible idea that exposes them to possible hacking.”

The Nevada Democratic Party was due to use the same app the IDP used, which was built by Shadow, Inc., but immediately announced it would abandon those plans after the Iowa debacle.

At the time, Nevada State Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy said in a statement that the party had “already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.”

With early voting set to begin Saturday and run through Tuesday, and the official Caucus Day to follow on Feb. 22, the Nevada Democratic Party has had a short amount of time to turn around a new vote counting system. 

Former Iowa caucus worker Douglas W. Jones, who works as an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, said the issue of training volunteers, many of whom are often older, was one of his biggest concerns headed into the Nevada caucuses. 

“The challenge is I think that the average age of poll workers in the United States is in the 70s,” Jones said. “There are generations of people still politically engaged who are not necessarily technologically proficient.”

Mounce noted in the memo that 3,000 volunteers would undergo a “robust training program” to prepare for the caucuses, though according to CNN, many precinct volunteers had not yet seen the iPads they will use with one day to early voting.

David Levine, a former election official in both Idaho and Washington, D.C., told The Hill on Friday he was concerned that party officials may not be as well-versed in training volunteers on how to use new technologies. 

“It’s a tough process to do in such a short period of time with volunteers,” Levine, who currently serves as an Elections Integrity Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, added. “It’s important to have not only trained folks on how to do this process, but also on how to use the backup process.”

Despite concerns around training, both Jones and Levine hailed Nevada’s decision to use paper backups to guarantee the vote count, and to move away from the use of an app. 

Liz Howard, former deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said the backup paper voting sheets in Nevada were “a good sign for election integrity.”

But Howard, who currently serves as counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said she was still concerned the voting plan “likely hasn’t received sufficient review from security experts, candidates or other stakeholders.”

Top Nevada officials have been optimistic about the voting process going into the caucuses. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) said during an interview earlier this week he was “confident we’ve taken every precaution.”

“We’ve learned from Iowa, so hopefully we won’t have any of those problems,” Sisolak added. 

The caucuses are run by party officials but state officials will be watching closely. The website of Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske says the agency will assist in ensuring that “all eligible voters who qualify pursuant to the respective political party rules have the ability to participate.”

Nevada will not be the last presidential caucus of 2020, with both North Dakota and Wyoming holding theirs in the next two months. 

Nina Sanchez-Hebert, the communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party, told The Hill that the party considered using an app to help tally votes but dropped that idea well ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Instead the party will mail out paper ranked-choice ballots to all registered Democrats in the state, with voters then able to either mail in their choices or participate in person at the caucuses. 

Despite the pushback against apps or other types of technology following the Iowa caucuses, Jones argued technology can be beneficial, and is particularly effective when used to help report out early vote counts to the media.

“When you think about the caucuses delivering the paperwork to the state party offices and producing the overall official on-paper results takes quite a few days,” Jones said. “I think the role of technology is getting quick results, and quick results really matter in our incremental series.”

Levine emphasized that voters in Nevada should not be deterred by concerns around the voting process in the state and urged them to show up and participate.

“Regardless of the challenges that may exist in administering the election, I think it’s incumbent on any Nevadan who wants to participate in the caucus to do so,” Levine said. “If you are not participating for that reason, that’s a win for our adversaries, both domestic and foreign.”

Tags Big tech John Katko Mike Quigley Nevada

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