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First test of Nevada Democrats’ new caucus plan arrives as early vote begins

Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
Election 2020

Nevada Democrats will head to early voting sites across the state on Saturday — from the Old Post Office in Fallon to the Chinatown Plaza Mall in Las Vegas — to begin casting their presidential preferences ahead of the state’s Feb. 22 caucus.

In some ways, it’s an exciting moment for Democrats here in the Silver State: Never before have they been able to participate early in the state’s presidential caucus, as they will over a four-day period. In others, it’s a nerve-wracking one: No one quite knows if the new process the party has quickly re-designed in the wake of Iowa’s problem-plagued contest earlier this month is going to work.

What they do know is that beginning Saturday, Nevada Democrats, or those wishing to re-register as a Democrat, will show up at roughly 80 sites across the state to cast their early caucus votes. Once voters are there, a volunteer will check a PDF voter roll to confirm their registration, or direct them to fill out a voter registration form if they aren’t, since Democrats here allow same-day registration for the caucus. 

From there, they’ll check in on an iPad through Google Forms and be given a paper scannable ballot, similar to a Scantron, where they will be asked to mark a minimum of three and up to five presidential preferences in order. Once they’re done, that ballot and a paper voter card, both of which contain a unique voter PIN to match the ballot to the person, will be placed into a secure ballot box, which will be taken to a designated ballot processing hub to be scanned.

That scanned data will then be uploaded to a cloud where it will be stored until it is somehow transmitted to their home precincts on Caucus Day to be counted alongside their neighbors’ preferences, just as if they had been there in person. That data will be accessible to precinct chairs at various steps during the caucus using a Google Forms-powered calculator.

The party released the final details of the new early vote plan on Tuesday, followed by a memo detailing the Caucus Day process on Thursday.

A new memo released by the party late Friday night to campaigns, a copy of which was obtained by The Nevada Independent, reveals additional logistical details about the early voting process, including what happens in the event of human error in filling out the scannable paper ballots. Ballots that the scanning machine is unable to process will be reviewed by the party’s ballot review team, which will include the party’s general counsel and two other individuals appointed by the party chair.

The team will be responsible for determining whether each ballot is valid and whether the voter’s intent can be determined through review. If the team is able to establish the voter’s intent, the ballot will be counted as usual; if it can’t, the ballot will be declared void. Individuals whose ballots are declared void during early voting will be allowed to participate in the in-person Caucus Day process.

Importantly, according to the memo, any ballot that does not have a minimum of three presidential preferences marked — necessary for any potential realignment on Caucus Day should the caucusgoers’ first choice not meet the 15 percent viability threshold — will be automatically declared void, meaning participants must make a total of three choices in order for their ballot to count. However, the memo notes that if a voter chooses to vote for the same candidate three times, the ballot will not be declared void.

Voters’ ballots can also be declared void if they make more than one selection per presidential preference column, making their actual choice indeterminable, though any columns before the one with the error would still be counted. (In other words, a voter’s first, second and third choices would still be counted if there was an error in the fourth choice column.) According to the memo, ballots without the necessary identifying information and a voter signature will not be counted, and ballots with no signatures will be voided.

Party volunteers and campaign staffers, to varying degrees, want to be optimistic about the process. But they still have unanswered questions about some of the finer points of how the caucus is going to work, including how exactly the data from the ballots will be scanned and stored, who will have access to the early vote data before Caucus Day, and how exactly the paper backups for various points in the process will work.

“I’m still unsettled about the whole thing,” said Chris Erbe, a Caucus Day precinct chair at West Charleston Tech. 

Erbe said that one of his friends who is a site lead is “supposedly going to be able to come across a little more information” and is putting on a training on Saturday for volunteers. He was unclear whether the training is party-sanctioned or one his friend decided to host ad hoc.

“We’re both retired teachers and we’re kind of used to having lesson plans that spell it all out,” Erbe said. “This is a little — it’s been a little loosey goosey.”

Another Caucus Day volunteer, Seth Morrison, said that he’s concerned that the party is using Google Forms to carry out some of the key functions of the caucus process. But he believes the party has taken a step in the right direction.

“I think they’ve done as much as they reasonably can do,” Morrison said.

But interviews with several volunteers reveal the lack of information being communicated to the individuals responsible for carrying out the caucus process on the ground level. For instance, one volunteer did not realize that the Google Forms-powered calculator was an integral step in the Caucus Day process and was planning to do all the calculations by hand.

An early vote volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to speak frankly about the caucus process, reported feeling “cautiously optimistic” after developing a plan with the site lead. They’ve added their own tweaks to the early voting process, including bringing clipboards to allow people to fill out paper voter registration forms while in line, making sure they have powerstrips for the iPads, and packing extra Sharpies to void out ballots should a voter make an error.

But the volunteer remained concerned about some of the finer points of early voting, such as whether the font on the PDF voter roll would be too small and the document easy enough to navigate given that it could be thousands of pages long in Clark and Washoe counties, the two biggest counties in the state.

Another early vote volunteer, who also asked to remain anonymous because of ties with other organizations, was more confident in the early voting process, which will rely on paper ballots, compared to the Caucus Day process.

“For early caucus, I do think that’s where hopefully it will work out, but I think for Caucus Day … I think this will be even more complicated than Iowa because you need to do the rank choice, and the early caucus results need to be sent to the precinct,” the volunteer said.

Morrison actually said he is encouraging people to vote early, just because he believes the process is more straightforward.

“I think the caucuses themselves have a higher risk of integrity,” he said.

Several volunteers also brought up the general concern that caucus volunteers tend to be older and therefore may be less comfortable with the new technology the party is implementing.

“I hate to characterize this all this way, but at the training I went to, most of the people were over the age of 65. I don’t know how tech savvy all of them are,” said Erbe, 67, a retired Clark County School District teacher. “I was lucky working in the school district I was exposed to all that technology. That part’s not intimidating to me.”

It’s not just the volunteers who are worried, either. Aides to several top Democratic presidential campaigns have continued to express concerns about the new caucus process, though that concern is now tinged with a certain resignation that early vote has arrived and there’s not much that campaigns can do other than turn their supporters out.

One official pointed to specific concerns with how difficult accessing the PDF voter roll might be for early voting and how logistically early vote data will be transferred back to voters’ home precincts.

“We are in a state of heightened alert on the eve of early vote, and we’re watching how early vote proceeds,” the official said. “We are just hoping that all of these issues are worked out in the process on the first day of early vote, and that we get more clarity as the week moves on.”

Another aide acknowledged that the party can’t necessarily share all the details of how its backend system is going to work publicly for security purposes, but voiced frustration that that information had not been directly communicated to campaigns.

“I think the caucus is upon us, and we’ve got to make this situation work for us and hope that the party will keep us in the loop and answer questions along the way,” the aide said.

A staffer on a third organization said campaign officials had done their “due diligence” and “feel generally good about where we are.”

“Just crossing our fingers and hoping the party can pull it off,” the staffer said. “There is the feeling that we are free falling into the unknown.”


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