In the next few days, the Democratic Party in Nevada and nationally faces an urgent and difficult choice. In an admirable desire to expand access to the caucuses, four days of early voting for the NV caucuses are scheduled to begin this Saturday. But to integrate this early-voting system with the actual caucuses, the Nevada Democratic Party (NDP) had planned to rely on the same newly created app that imploded in the Iowa caucuses. The question now becomes whether the NDP can patch together an 11th hour alternative that avoids the debacle of Iowa, or whether the Party must consider other, obviously uncomfortable options — such as cancelling early voting altogether.
The nominations process and the Democratic Party can ill-afford another meltdown in NV, which will further delegitimate the process, alienate voters, and raise yet more questions about the party’s competence. NV’s voting system for the caucuses is essentially the same, multi-round system that Iowa used. I believe 2020 is the first time NV has tried to incorporate early voting into this process. At around 80 early voting sites, voters are to fill out a ranked-choice ballot, ranking as many as five candidates in order of preference. In the four days between the end of early voting and the date of the actual caucuses, Feb. 22, the app was supposed to transfer all this information to the more than 2,000 precincts throughout the State. Then the precinct captains have to combine this data with the numbers at the caucus site to figure out, first, which candidates have crossed the line of “viability,” and second, to whom all the votes for candidates who are not viable should be redistributed during the adjustments that take place in the second round, as in Iowa.
Without the app to make this complex process work, the NDP is now scrambling to cobble together an alternative. But the NDP better be confident before Saturday it can come up with a solution here that will avoid the mess of Iowa. According to the Nevada Independent, “Nevada Democrats are planning to use a new caucus tool that will be preloaded onto iPads and distributed to precinct chairs to help facilitate the Caucus Day process, according to multiple volunteers and a video recording of a volunteer training session on Saturday.” I am not on the ground in NV and don’t know whether the NDP can successfully pull off an 11th hour solution like this. But I do have experience with election administration, and there are good reasons to be concerned whether 2000 + precinct captains, many of whom will not be as technologically proficient as those developing these solutions, will be able to make this work. On top of that, the NDP is still in the process of recruiting precinct chairs and caucus volunteers, let alone training them on a last-minute new technological fix. Reading the rest of the Nevada Independent article isn’t promising on how this is going so far.
The number of Nevadans who will take advantage of early voting would of course affect how big of an administrative management issue will be faced. But in the last general elections in NV, more than 50% of voters voted early, consistent with high uptake rates for early voting in the Western states, in particular (for caucuses, I would expect a lower rate, but even at half that rate, that’s a lot of votes to process). Given the Democratic Party’s efforts to expand access and its commitment to early voting in general, I understand the desire to do everything possible to make early voting in NV work, despite the implosion of the Shadow Inc. app.
But the Party can’t get this decision wrong and should not engage in collective self-delusion about whether it can pull off a last-minute change to make the early voting process now work in NV. As noted above, the Party has to be confident it can do this in the next few days, before early voting begins. If there is not that level of confidence, then the NDP and the DNC should seriously consider other, uncomfortable options.
One option would be to cancel early voting, which as suggested above, has not been a feature of the NV caucuses before this year. That would obviously be a blow to the process and I suppose embarrassing to the Party, but the Party has to weigh those costs against a realistic assessment of the risks and costs of another election debacle. Another possible option might be to postpone the NV caucus for a week or more, but the campaigns have built all their efforts around these dates, and I would imagine postponement would be even more strongly resisted by the campaigns than cancelling early voting. A third option might be to permit early voters to vote for only one candidate rather than rank-order the candidates; this would simplify transferring early vote counts to the caucus precincts, but it would mean early voters and caucus voters would vote under two different voting rules and systems, with early voters denied the same ability to affect the outcome as caucus voters. As a matter of public legitimacy and perceptions of fairness, that might be hard to explain and justify.
The DNC cannot leave these choices to the NDP alone. There is too much at stake for the Party and the nominations process to let one state party make the wrong choice about how to handle the mess that’s been created by the failure of the app. Options like canceling early voting or postponing the caucus or changing the early-voting rules might well require formal approval by the DNC, in any event.
I don’t know what the right choice here is, because I don’t have all the relevant information. But I do know how psychological mechanisms of denial work, in institutions as well as individuals, and I hope the Party will engage in honest and sober discussion about how the NV caucuses can, after what we have “learned” from Iowa, best be brought to a successful conclusion.