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Nevada Democrats Canceled Their Caucus App. But That Poses Its Own Problems.

A week ago, Nevada Democrats were planning to use an app for their caucuses on Feb. 22. The chaos in Iowa has put an end to that.

The Nevada Democratic Party confirmed to FiveThirtyEight that it has “eliminated the option of using an app at any step in the caucus process,” Molly Forgey, the party’s communications director, said Friday. The app that was going to be used was reportedly developed by Shadow Inc., the company that developed the infamous app for the Iowa Democratic Party.

But that doesn’t mean Nevada is out of the woods. Scrapping the app could also lead to some complications thanks to a new addition to the Silver State’s caucuses this year: early voting.

The Nevada Democratic Party hasn’t yet revealed what it plans to do instead — “At this time, we’re considering all of our options,” Forgey said — though using paper and phoning in results seems like an obvious solution. But the party’s plan to introduce early voting this year — slated to start on Feb. 15 — relied heavily on a functioning app, and it’s unclear how those votes will now be incorporated during the in-person caucuses.

In a caucus system, voters gather to demonstrate support for their first choice candidate. But if that candidate doesn’t clear a vote threshold in the first round, those supporters either have to join together, find a new candidate to support, or decide not to support anyone in a process called reallocation.

Under Nevada’s original plan, early voters would have their ranked choices recorded in the app. That data would then be sent to their local precinct chair for caucus day, where their votes would be automatically tallied and, as needed, reallocated. Now, without an app doing all the tabulations, it’s unclear how those early votes will be included.

It’s possible, of course, to conduct a caucus using a more analog system, and election experts said it’s also possible to incorporate the first round of early voting using paper. The way this would likely happen, experts told us, is by having the early voters fill out paper ballots with a rank-ordered list of up to five candidates, which would then be given to the volunteer running the caucus and incorporated into the process as if the people who had submitted the cards were actually there.

“I think if they allocate resources properly they can do it,” said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that advocates for fair elections. “I’m not suggesting it’s not a lot of work, but they’ve said they’re not going to use a mobile app. They’ve got to do something, right?”

But in order to integrate the early votes effectively, the party will have to start training its volunteers now. Ruben Murillo Jr., a precinct chair in Nevada, said all the early training focused exclusively on the app, and no backup plan was ever detailed.

“They never did address what to do if the app wasn’t working, how you would incorporate those early votes,” Murillo said, adding that he plans to seek further training now that the app has been scrapped.

If the number of people who vote early is small, folding the early votes into the process on caucus day should be fairly easy for the volunteers in charge of the caucuses to handle, according to Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But he said the addition of paper ballots would almost certainly slow down the process — and if the people responsible for the caucus aren’t well trained, they could inadvertently reproduce the small but widespread errors that have already been documented in Iowa.

“There will be error at the caucus sites in counting the people who are present and counting these early ballots that come in,” Burden said. “And there will be errors in the transmission, where people hear incorrectly, where someone has said or written something down incorrectly, transposed digits, all kinds of things that happen when humans are involved.”

And introducing a new method for tallying votes at the last minute just creates more room for slip-ups. Supporters of the various candidates are also likely to have their ears pricked for problems or inconsistencies, given the closeness of the race.

Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, expressed concerns about the Iowa app back in January. He now says that even if Nevada does have a strong backup system in place, it’s worrying if the caucus volunteers haven’t been trained in how to carry it out — not to mention that the state party hasn’t yet announced what the backup plan actually is.

“It doesn’t increase my confidence to hear them saying, ‘We’re still figuring out what we’re going to do,’” he said.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.