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Tech Was Supposed To Improve Caucuses. Instead, It May Have Doomed Them.

It all seemed so noble at first. The Democratic National Committee wanted its primary to be more transparent and accessible, so it required state parties to accept absentee ballots and to report raw vote numbers. Iowa and Nevada Democrats responded by adding technology to their caucuses in the hopes of improving transparency, increasing participation and speeding up how quickly results could be reported. Seemed straightforward enough.

But there’s one thing Democrats probably weren’t expecting tech would do: highlight so much of what was already wrong with caucuses. Even if the new technology worked flawlessly, the need for these digital tools only underscored the many problems with caucuses, nearly none of which could be solved with an app. Now, there’s an open question about whether caucuses will be part of 2024’s nominating process.

The Democrats’ tech utopianism started with plans in Iowa and Nevada to hold “virtual caucuses,” allowing Democrats who couldn’t attend a caucus in person to cast a ballot remotely by phone. There’s a reason you didn’t hear much about them over the past month — they were kiboshed by the DNC due to security concerns.

But even traditional caucuses were being modernized, which is why you heard all about infamous apps, jammed phone lines and Google forms in the past few weeks. They were high-tech workarounds for some of caucuses’ flaws: they’re not inclusive, they’re not transparent and the complicated math and arcane rules can confuse even the most seasoned of volunteers, opening the door for errors.

Take, for example, one caucus quandary: how to incorporate an absentee ballot.

In a primary, early ballots can just be counted alongside day-of votes, but caucusing requires some way for those early ballots to be realigned. In a caucus, voters group together to support their first-choice candidate, but if he or she doesn’t attract a certain percentage of votes — typically 15 percent — that candidate is deemed nonviable. Those supporters then have to realign themselves to form a viable group, either by combining with the supporters of other nonviable candidates or by joining the supporters of a candidate who met the threshold.

This is difficult in person. Now try to figure out a way to do that with people who voted early.

In the past, most caucuses just … didn’t, which plays into one of the biggest critiques of caucusing: it’s not inclusive. If you work a late shift, or have a disability, or lack the transportation or time or childcare required to spend a few hours in a school gymnasium on a specific date, then too bad, you don’t get to participate.

The DNC tried to solve this problem by introducing the absentee ballot requirement, but meeting that requirement forced caucus states to turn to tech solutions. The first pitch — the “virtual” caucuses — was rife with security risks. Iowa’s second option, to host remote satellite caucuses, avoided tech issues but didn’t solve a lot of the accessibility issues with caucusing.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s solution was to host a four-day early voting period that again required a tech solution (first the app, then a Google form) to incorporate these ranked-choice ballots into the live caucus process. Though the Google form seems to have worked more or less as intended, with no reports of systemic problems, it underscores how much simpler it would be to just have a primary, where early votes could be incorporated without the need of any special tech tools.

Then there’s the lack of transparency. For decades, state parties would only report out the caucuses’ final results (technically, the number of state or county convention delegates won by each candidate). This left a lot of unknowns about how voters changed their preferences and who actually won the popular vote. In a bid for more transparency, the DNC enacted rules this year requiring states to report three sets of numbers: the total votes in the first alignment, the total votes in the final alignment and the delegate equivalents.

More transparent? Sure. Easy? Hardly.

It was this requirement that, in part, spurred the Iowa Democratic Party to commission the development of an app, which experienced widespread failures on the day of the caucuses and led to an extended delay in reporting results. The requirement is also being blamed for the delay in Nevada’s results being reported — it simply took longer for all those numbers to be reported and verified.

In a way, the effort to create more transparency worked, just not in the way the DNC may have intended. The new system’s failure drew greater scrutiny to the process, and the need to report all three numbers meant more detailed records were kept. The combination revealed pervasive errors that may very well have plagued caucuses forever — reports of errors have occurred in previous years, too.

The shuffling of voters over one or many realignments has always been ripe for mistakes. No app can fix that. A primary, where each voter votes just once, largely avoids these pitfalls. Even former Senator Harry Reid, the godfather of Nevada’s early calendar caucuses, and some Iowa Democrats have now said they believe a primary is the way to go.

Caucuses have been drawing criticism for these issues for years now, and it’s one of the reasons that more and more states have already made the decision to switch to a primary. But the efforts to introduce tech as a means to solve these issues has only served to further highlight how difficult they are to solve.

Democrats turned to tech in an effort to save caucuses. In the end, it might be what finally kills them.

Kaleigh Rogers is a FiveThirtyEight reporter covering science, politics and technology.