Ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucus, Sam Parkinson, a Democratic party official flown in from Washington DC, was going over the basics of using an iPad — starting with how to unlock it. Watching was retiree Terri Ringlee, a volunteer enlisted to help run a caucus in North Las Vegas, one of 250 locations across Nevada. “We’re going to do this!” she exclaimed.
The Democratic party is relying on them to help the western state avoid the fate that befell Iowa, where technical glitches and human error saw its caucus descend into farce earlier this month.
“I think everyone is concerned, and wants to see things go well,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the party’s presidential contenders, to reporters while campaigning on Friday.
“I very much hope that there aren’t any technical glitches, and that everyone can get out and caucus, and get their caucus votes counted.”
After Iowa, the Democratic party ditched the vote-tallying app developed by political technology firm, Shadow. Instead it turned to a homegrown solution developed and introduced in just three weeks.
It means Saturday’s caucus will be grassroots American democracy powered by a combination of Google Forms and Sheets, two office products that run in the cloud and are accessed, in this case, via one of the 2,000 iPads purchased by the Democratic Party.
Ms Ringlee and her friends were among about 60 volunteers who turned out on Friday for training at a Las Vegas high school. The session was one of more than 50 that have taken place, online and off, over the past three days. It was a chance to go through the “basics” of Saturday’s process and, more importantly, get in some much-needed practice with the software. However, with groups of about 10 people gathered around each iPad, the “hands-on” session proved challenging for some.
“A lot of people here are older,” said Arlene Castilla, who works in a local office for one of Nevada’s members of Congress. “They just need to go a little bit slower.”
On Saturday, as caucus-goers shuffle into their groups, precinct volunteers will log in to the “Caucus Calculator” and enter the number of participants supporting each candidate into the Google Form. The calculator will then pull in results from the early voting that took place over the past week and calculate a candidate’s overall popularity in that district. Any candidates who have enough support to be considered “viable” will be highlighted in green on the iPad’s screen.
It is not exactly clear what happens next. At Friday’s session, volunteers were told that submitting the vote tally on the iPad would send the data back to party officials. But, later, campaigns received a party memo saying the iPad would not be used for that purpose.
Either way, the primary method for volunteers to report their results will be via a phone number kept hidden from public view, to discourage online pranksters from clogging up the line as they did in Iowa.
Volunteers will then send a text message containing a photograph of the paper reporting sheet to the party, before taking an additional photograph that will remain stored on the iPad, just in case. Finally, a physical copy of the reporting sheet is placed in an envelope and taken to the nearest Democratic party office.
“It’s a back-up for the back-up for the back-up for the back-up,” said Cheyenne Davis from the Democratic National Committee, who led the training programme. If the iPads failed, she said, precinct captains would have an envelope containing the early voting data for their district, delivered the morning of the caucus.
Google has not commented on the merits of the Democrats’ emergency solution. Expect that to change if Saturday goes off without a hitch, for it would be seen as a triumph for their cloud platform.
Some reports had suggested the search giant had sent a team to aid Democrats on the ground, but a source at the company told the Financial Times that was not that case — it was, as with any large client, offering routine remote customer service on how to implement the system.
Meanwhile, election security specialists, most often found with their heads in their hands during the election period, do not hate the idea of using Google to tally the vote — at least in principle.
“I’m less worried about the security than I am about how usable it is for the volunteers,” said Genya Coulter, an election security consultant based in Florida. “I do not care how secure any application is, if people haven’t had a chance to practice, to mess up, to figure out what went wrong, the security doesn’t matter.”
In 2016, turn out for the Nevada caucus was 84,000. This year, with 75,000 people taking the option to vote early, the day itself may see much smaller crowds that usual. Indeed, the popularity of the early vote meant there was much debate at Friday’s training session around whether the archaic caucus process should be given up altogether.
For now, though, Ms Davis’s goal was to simply make sure everyone who left the training session felt confident they could enable Nevadans to exercise their civic duty without undue delay.
“I wouldn’t make any early dinner plans,” she told volunteers.