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The Nevada caucus tool is an iPad and a Google Form

Nevada’s Democratic Party is replacing the caucus app with “caucus calculator”-equipped iPads.

A “Vote Here” sign marks early voting for the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus.
Early voting for the 2020 Nevada Democratic presidential caucus closed February 18, with over 26,000 Nevada Democrats registering their choices early.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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Here we go again!

Fresh off the unmitigated disaster that was the Iowa Democratic caucuses, Nevada is kicking off caucuses of its own. After understandably scrapping its plans to use an app made by Shadow Inc., the company behind Iowa’s ill-fated caucus app, the Nevada State Democratic Party came up with a last-minute replacement — just in time for the early voting that began on February 15.

The replacement is a “tool” — reportedly (and, again, understandably) party leaders intentionally stayed away from calling it an “app” — which involves party-distributed iPads equipped with “caucus calculators” accessed through a simple Google form.

How Nevada’s Democratic caucuses work

The caucus process differs depending on the state (and political party) that does them. Nevada has been the third in the country to hold its Democratic nominating contest since 2008. Then-Sen. Harry Reid argued that his state better reflected the diversity of America’s population than Iowa (the first caucus) and New Hampshire (the first primary) did, so should have the chance to be an influential part of the presidential nominating process.

This year, Nevada’s Democratic caucus will be held on February 22, with early voting taking place February 15 to 18. This is the first time the caucus has had early voting, allowing registered Democrats to make their choice in person at any early voting location in their county. (While the caucuses are considered closed to non-affiliated voters, Nevada has same-day voting registration.)

On February 22, caucus-goers will report to their precinct and stand on the side of the room designated for the candidate they prefer. If a candidate doesn’t get a certain threshold of support — typically 15 percent, depending on the number of delegates at stake — they’ll be considered non-viable and their supporters will have to “realign” to a viable candidate (or not vote at all). There will also be paper ballot backups — which, if the caucuses are anything like Iowa’s, will come in handy.

Once that’s all figured out, voters pick delegates to represent their selections at conventions. In the event of a tie, the delegate will be decided by a drawing of playing cards. Yes, that’s right: In Vegas fashion, whichever group picks the highest card wins the delegate. If the groups pick the same card, the winner is chosen according to the card’s suit (spades being the highest, then hearts, diamonds, and finally clubs).

The candidate who gets the most delegates — not the one who gets the most votes — is considered the winner.

What changed in 2020

This year is the first to allow for early voting, the hope being that the option will increase participation among potential voters who can’t make the February 22 event. Early voters will submit their top three to five choices on a paper ballot. If a voter’s first choice doesn’t meet the threshold, their vote will be awarded to the next viable candidate on their list. The new rules also limit the number of realignment rounds to one.

Also, precinct chairs will have to submit both the raw vote totals as well as the delegate counts to party headquarters, much like Iowa’s precinct chairs did. That means they’ll report three sets of numbers: the first round of votes, the votes after the realignment, and the number of delegates awarded. In previous contests, precinct chairs simply reported the number of delegates won. While this increases transparency, it also adds several new steps to the reporting process.

These complications are likely why state party leaders planned to use a new smartphone app to help chairs report all those extra numbers. While Iowa had used a (different) app in 2016, this year would have been Nevada’s first caucus that uses one. Nevada paid Shadow at least $60,000 to develop the app — and recommended the company to the organizers of the Iowa caucuses.

In the original Nevada plan, the app would send early votes to precinct chairs that would be combined with the in-person caucus totals. The app would then calculate the combined results and report them back to the state party headquarters. Similar to the Iowa caucus, there would be phone and paper backups in place, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The smartphone app is dead. Long live the iPad “tool.”

In the wake of the Iowa caucus, Nevada quickly distanced itself from Shadow, saying it would not be using its apps and was “currently evaluating the best path forward.” But it didn’t say much about what that path was. News outlets reported Saturday that the party was demonstrating a “caucus tool” (the party discouraged volunteers from referring to it as an app, presumably due to the term’s new negative connotations) to be preloaded onto iPads distributed to precinct chairs. Preloading the tool sounds like a good idea, considering how many Iowa chairs had difficulty downloading their apps onto their mobile devices, let alone actually running them.

On February 13, a memo from the state party went out to campaigns that shed a little more light on the process: The tool is, in fact, a “caucus calculator” — accessed through a Google form — that would help precinct chairs figure out which candidates met the threshold and how many delegates to award the ones who did. The process sounds very similar to the functions of the app it replaces. The party said it consulted with the Democratic National Committee, the Department of Homeland Security, and Google to ensure security from potential hackers, which was, once upon a time, the primary concern about the caucus apps.

Chairs will have to report their results either through a phone hotline or by taking a photo of their reporting sheets and texting them to the party headquarters.

On February 19 — three days before the caucus is set to begin — the Nevada State Democratic Party released training guides showing precinct chairs how to operate the iPad tool:

Nevada State Democratic Party
Nevada State Democratic Party
Nevada State Democratic Party

Yes, the instructions include steps such as “open iPad case,” but, considering Iowa’s issues with some precinct chairs being entirely unfamiliar with smartphone apps, it’s probably a good idea to not assume any prior knowledge. Nevertheless, those familiar with Google Forms will feel right at home:

Nevada State Democratic Party

Chairs will also be completing a paper “math poster” worksheet that will require them to do the same basic math the iPad tool is supposed to do for them.

Nevada State Democratic Party

The most complicated part of the process — calculating re-aligned early voting results — still remains a bit of a mystery; the guide simply tells chairs to click “next” and the new totals will automatically appear, apparently distributed by the tool behind the scenes:

Nevada State Democratic Party

Once again, it looks like we’ll just have to hope the tool works as required come caucus night.

Update February 22, 2020, 4:40 pm: This post has been updated to add new details about the caucus tool and process.

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