Nevada Democrats’ Goal: Turn on iPads, Then Run Smooth Caucuses

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LAS VEGAS — On Page 31 of the Nevada Democratic Party’s caucus manual, there are step-by-step instructions for precinct leaders on how to begin entering and tabulating caucus results.

“Open iPad case.”

“Hold iPad horizontally.”

“Press the small round ‘home’ button on the side of the screen twice.”

“This brings you to your iPad home screen.”

Nevada Democratic officials are not taking anything for granted as Saturday’s caucuses approach, not after the catastrophe earlier this month in Iowa, where the results were delayed for days — in part because of a technological breakdown — and still remain under review.

Though past caucuses have run smoothly, and there is wide acknowledgment among Democrats that Nevada operates one of the best-run state parties in the country, the Iowa chaos has injected a heightened sense of jitters among officials here and the campaigns of the candidates who will compete here. That has led to a series of steps that state Democrats hope will forestall an Iowa-like meltdown.

Google — acutely aware that any failure of its product would be a high-profile disaster — has sent personnel to Las Vegas in case there are problems with the online spreadsheet application it provided to calculate caucus results. DigiDems, an incubator of technology talent for Democratic campaigns, also has officials and alumni on hand. The state party has recruited “tech volunteers” to be present at each caucus site to help precinct leaders operate the iPads.

Together they represent a kind of technological cavalry that didn’t exist in Iowa.

The Democratic National Committee’s technology team and senior leadership, who were in Des Moines as the Iowa caucus apparatus collapsed, have been in Nevada for days already. The D.N.C. will have three times as many people in Las Vegas on Saturday as it did in Des Moines for Iowa’s caucuses — and 20 more officials at D.N.C. headquarters in Washington have been aiding the effort, entering data about which Nevadans voted early.

The party’s senior leadership, including the chairman, Tom Perez, plan to be here for Saturday’s caucuses.

“We are going to school on the lessons of Iowa and our team is working very closely with the Nevada party to ensure that we have a successful caucus,” Mr. Perez said in an interview. “The Nevada party is very strong and this infrastructure is what has helped elect Democrats for years and will help ensure a successful caucus.”

Perhaps most important, the political network overseen by Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who is the lion of Nevada Democrats, has invested not just manpower and support but also reputational pride in making sure the caucuses run smoothly.

Democrats across America with ties to Mr. Reid’s political operation are converging on Nevada with the goal of protecting one of the tent-pole local achievements for Mr. Reid — cementing Nevada’s slot near the front of the presidential nominating calendar. They are determined not to let a caucus disaster mar his legacy.

Mr. Reid and other Nevada Democrats are already openly speculating that successful caucuses will help them wrestle the first-in-the-nation position away from Iowa during the next contested presidential primary. “I’m convinced that Nevada is going to move up significantly,’’ Mr. Reid said in an interview.

“Of course it is important that we have a smooth caucus,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in Nevada. “The state party is registering thousands of new Democrats that will be poised to deliver Nevada to the eventual Democratic nominee. To me that is the ultimate measure of success.”

Still, even if everything runs smoothly, Nevada’s caucuses are far more complicated than Iowa’s, and there is trepidation that if just one element of the process fails, it could cause a cascade of problems jeopardizing the whole system.

Saturday’s caucuses, for instance, will be the first time Nevada Democrats are required to combine early-voting tabulations with same-day results, a consequence of new D.N.C. rules that mandate state parties allow absentee participation at caucuses and primaries.

Adding to the challenges, training for volunteers in charge of caucus precincts began only in the last week. In-person sessions on how to use the calculator tool on the iPads started Tuesday and will take place again Thursday and Friday. The state party does not plan to reveal the phone number to report results until Saturday morning.

Even the Google Forms method of calculating results was hastily adopted when Nevada officials scrapped plans to use the Shadow Inc. app that failed so prominently in Iowa.

The early voting adds to the complexity of the process. Four days’ worth of early-vote ballots — more than 70,000, according to the state party — must be hand-fed into the party’s voting machines, which will record and calculate the ranked-choice preferences and sort the results into the state’s 2,097 precincts.

Nevada Democrats have attributed long lines at early-voting locations to enthusiasm for the presidential contest. But it also may be an indicator of technological hiccups to come.

In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and about 70 percent of Nevada Democrats, volunteers checking people in at early-voting locations were told to search for names on PDF files of the voter rolls loaded onto iPads. Because the files were so large, searching for a name often caused the machines to freeze, sometimes forcing volunteers to swipe through dozens of screens to find a particular voter on the rolls.

Nevada officials, however, are optimistic that the early-vote turnout — which amounts to about 80 percent of the entire 2016 caucus universe — will also ease some of the pressure on the volunteers Saturday.

“With less people in the room Saturday it won’t be as crazy as 2008 or 2016,” said Chris Miller, a former Clark County Democratic chairman.

Caucus day instructions are detailed in a 61-page “caucus refresher” manual that precinct leaders have been shown at training sessions this week.

In addition to instructions about how to turn on the iPad, the document provides details about what precinct leaders will need to do to log into Google Forms: Enter their precinct number and a “two-word secret passphrase” that is provided in a precinct folder they will receive from a party official at the caucus site.

Data from the early-vote ballots are being entered into Google Forms, which will separate voters by precincts and then transmit the results to party-owned iPads. For redundancy, paper records of the early-vote data will also be distributed to precincts in “secure envelopes.”

Caucus chairs whose iPads fail or who prefer not to use the iPads will be free to calculate delegate viability based on the paper backup.

Throughout the caucuses, precinct leaders will be responsible for recording anywhere between 102 and 138 data points into the iPad; onto the state party’s caucus math poster, which is to be posted on a wall of the precinct room; and the caucus reporting sheet, which is to be submitted as the official result. The mathematics that determine viability and delegate allocation is supposed to be done by the Google app, but if the iPad fails the caucus leaders are supposed to do it themselves.

Here’s the math to allocate delegates by hand: Multiply the total participants in the final alignment by the number of delegates each caucus elects, divided by the number of total caucus participants. Then round that fraction to the next whole number.

Ties will be broken by a draw from an unopened deck of cards, with the higher card winning.

When the caucuses finish, results are to be submitted four times: into Google Forms on the iPad, by phone to a Nevada Democratic Party hotline, through a photo of the reporting worksheet that is to be texted to the party and with a paper backup that is to be collected at each of the state party’s 252 caucus locations.

Officials with the presidential campaigns, who are still traumatized by their Iowa experience, this week privately lamented what they described as a lack of information from the state party about the caucus process, but Nevada officials, who have been conducting regular conference calls with campaign staff, say they have been as transparent as possible.

The Google Forms tool is an off-the-rack product available for anyone to purchase. The company plans to provide remote support to the Nevada Democratic Party, as it would to any other customer who purchased its products. Though it has also sent a small team to Las Vegas to ensure the tool is correctly used, it is not providing additional security, according to officials briefed on the plans.

Five cybersecurity experts contacted by The New York Times said they believed that, like the state Democratic Party in Iowa, Nevada officials waited too long to build a system to tally and transmit caucus results. The experts recommend testing a system for several months leading up to an important electoral contest, to ensure that any bugs are worked out. Problems as anodyne as a bad internet connection or poor cell service can leave technical systems in shambles, according to the experts.

“When you scale up something that has never been used before there are lots of little things that can go wrong that need be quickly corrected,” said Matt Blaze, an election security expert who teaches computer science at Georgetown University. “It is important to have people with technical expertise on the ground on the day of, but there are also things you can’t foresee.”

Problems can range from user malfunction to a malicious attack by hackers, said Mr. Blaze. He said that an attack could be as simple as trying to overwhelm Google’s systems by repeatedly requesting a password reset.

“Anytime you got an online system that is essentially exposed to the internet, that just amplifies the size of the attack surface and the number of things that can go wrong,” Mr. Blaze said.

Reid J. Epstein reported from Las Vegas and Sheera Frankel reported from San Francisco. Alexander Burns, Jennifer Medina and Trip Gabriel contributed reporting from Las Vegas.

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