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Nevada Democrats bet on Google app to avoid Iowa-like meltdown

Experts say a lack of training for volunteers and testing of the reporting system could still spell trouble for tabulating results.

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Nevada Caucus volunteers receive training for recording caucus results. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's full coverage of the 2020 elections.

Nevada's caucus is Saturday. And the state's Democratic Party is hoping not to repeat the tech meltdown that delayed results in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month. Following that debacle, party officials in Nevada quickly ditched plans to use their own app and pivoted to a new plan involving iPads and a Google survey app. 

But is the new approach up to the task? That's the big question. National Democratic party officials say they feel Nevada is ready. 

"Nevada Democrats have learned important lessons from Iowa," said Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "And we're confident they're implementing these best practices into their preparations. We've deployed staff to help them across the board, from technical assistance to volunteer recruitment."

Nevada's new system calls for precinct chairs to use 2,000 iPads loaded with Google Forms, a survey tool often used to track birthday party RSVPs and plan potlucks. On Saturday, it'll be used to calculate and electronically submit results from caucus precincts around the state. Party officials say they also have a paper backup system in place.

The new process Nevada plans to use came together quickly after the use of a custom-built app during the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus caused confusion that delayed the announcement of a winner. Many people blame the Iowa Democratic Party for what appears to be a botched rollout of an app on such a big stage. There was also criticism that the app hadn't been tested thoroughly enough. 

It turns out the app Nevada had planned to use came from the same company behind the Iowa caucus app, Shadow. Nevada Democrats say using iPads and a commercial app like Google Forms should reduce the likelihood of a similar mishap during their caucuses.

"We understand just how important it is that we get this right and protect the integrity of Nevadans' votes," Nevada State Democratic Party Executive Director Alana Mounce said in a memo issued last week. "We are confident in our backup plans and redundancies."

But some experts aren't so sure. The biggest issue for election experts is the fact that the process and technology haven't been adequately tested, leaving little time for precinct chairs and volunteers to be trained and to make sure the technology actually works. A New York Times report said volunteers in charge of the precincts were trained only last week. And in-person sessions on how to use Google Forms on the iPads started Tuesday. 

"I'm certainly worried," said Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and an expert on voting and election administration. "There's always concern when you don't have a chance to really test the technology and properly train everyone who will be using it."

But Democratic officials in Nevada say they've got it under control. The iPads will be preloaded with the Google Forms app so there won't be any worry that precinct officials have to use their own personal devices to download the app. Also, Google Forms is a commercially available online tool made by one of the biggest tech giants in the world. A Google spokesperson confirmed the Nevada Democratic team is using an enterprise license for the product, which means it offers added security over the free version. What's more, an enterprise license also comes with standard Google tech support, which may prove helpful if there are issues on the ground. 

But that doesn't mean other tech-related issues can't creep up in Nevada. One concern is whether there'll be adequate internet connectivity at all caucus sites. Google Forms is a cloud-based service that relies on an internet connection to work. So any hiccups in network connectivity could affect use of the tool. 

Party officials didn't respond to a request for comment on that specific issue. But they've previously explained in public statements that they've built in redundancies to ensure everything runs smoothly.  

Caucus chairs whose iPads fail or who prefer not to use the iPads will be able to use a paper backup to calculate delegate viability. Results can also be shared by phone via a Nevada Democratic Party hotline, or officials can take a photo of the reporting worksheet, which can be sent to officials. 

Still, Nevada Democrats are aware the stakes are high. Nevada is the third state on the primary calendar and the first contest in which there's a significant minority population. Atkeson said another debacle would likely reflect badly on the national Democratic Party and raise questions about the fairness of the primary process to select a candidate for president. She said it would also call into question whether the party should rely on caucuses staffed by volunteers rather than primary elections run by state election boards staffed with election professionals.

 "Political parties know how to win elections," she said, "not run them." 

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