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Nevada Democrats Say They’ll Replace Their Caucus App With iPads And A Google Form

In just two days, Nevadans will begin early voting in the state’s Democratic caucuses. For the past few weeks, it’s been unclear how those votes would be integrated into the overall vote tallies after Nevada Democrats were spooked by the chaos in Iowa’s Democratic primary and decided to toss a previous plan to use an app. But today, the state Democratic party revealed how it intends to incorporate those early votes into the live caucuses on Feb. 22: “a simple, user-friendly calculator.”

What that means, exactly, is still a bit unclear. In a memo sent to campaigns Thursday and shared with FiveThirtyEight, the party wrote that “the caucus calculator will only be used on party-purchased iPads provided to trained precinct chairs and accessed through a secure Google web form.”

The memo didn’t provide any specifics about whether the calculator would be accessed through the Google form, or whether the Google form itself is the calculator. It’s also not clear if early-vote tallies will live on the web, or if they’ll be pre-loaded onto each district’s iPad. The state party did not immediately respond to our request for further comment.

During the early voting period, Nevada Democrats will fill out a paper ballot with their top three candidates, and the option to also include their fourth and fifth choices. Those ballots will then be scanned, and the early voting data will be accessed through the party-issued iPads at each voter’s local precinct, according to the memo. From there, those votes will be integrated into caucus day votes, with some caucus math calculations preset into the form.

Crucially, early vote data will also be available on paper to precinct chairs, who are required to fill out the caucus formula on paper even if they use the iPad calculator, according to the memo. The results will be reported via a phone hotline, and verified by the party using either the calculator or the paper formula.

Though the memo doesn’t offer much detail, the caucuses seem to have moved from a proprietary app to a glorified spreadsheet. It may no longer be high- — or even medium- — tech, but that’s likely for the best.

Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor, said the new plan “seems like a reasonable process.”

“If the iPad fails, the necessary info from early voting is available on paper. And the math worksheet plus, possibly, a calculator or even pencil and scrap paper should be enough to allow the caucus chair to do it,” Jones said.

Up until a week and a half ago, Nevada had planned to use an app to incorporate early votes, calculate caucus math and report results. But last week, the Iowa caucuses imploded in part due to problems with an app the state party had adopted to report results. The company that built Iowa’s app, Shadow, is the same company that built Nevada’s app, and after all the complications in Iowa, the Nevada Democratic Party announced it wouldn’t use the app after all.

The new plan avoids many of the pitfalls that led to the problems in Iowa, according to Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“For starters, the outlines of the plan are being shared publicly,” Burden said. “Providing each precinct chair with the same hardware and pre-loaded software will help to ensure uniformity across the state and reduce the likelihood of local IT problems that disrupt the process.”

But Burden also expressed some lingering questions, such as whether the reporting hotline will be sufficiently staffed to avoid a backlog like what reportedly happened in Iowa. Testing and running trial caucuses using both the Google form and paper backups — which the party says it will be doing over the next week — will be crucial, Burden said, to making sure Nevada’s caucuses meet a better fate than their peers in the midwest.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux contributed reporting.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.