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After Early Caucusing Period, Nevada's Voters Turn Out On Saturday

Feb 21, 2020
Originally published on February 21, 2020 6:44 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The Nevada caucuses start tomorrow. It's the first time this year that voters in a state with a large nonwhite population will caucus. Nevada is also using new technology to count the votes, and that's making some people nervous after the debacle in Iowa. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is in Washington, and NPR's Miles Parks is in Las Vegas. Good morning, guys.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Domenico...

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: ...Let's start with you. It has been a week. What happened that has shaped or even reshaped this race over the past couple days?

MONTANARO: Well, we know already there's been pretty high interest. So far, 70,000 people have voted early. And for perspective, just 84,000 people voted in total in 2016, so looks like things are on their way to a potentially record-high turnout. What we'll see, you know, is a couple things factoring in. The fact that, one, the powerful culinary union did not endorse but came out against Bernie Sanders' health care plan and criticized the reaction of his fervent followers - how that's going to play out on caucus day is going to be really interesting.

And, two, that debate - we saw the debate in New Hampshire make a real difference. It's less clear who it might help or hurt this time. I'm really interested to see how Elizabeth Warren does, given her fiery debate. And we'll find out Saturday if her approach worked.

KING: We'll also find out, to some degree, what voters of color are thinking for the first time, right?

MONTANARO: Absolutely. This is crucial. It's the first test with a diverse electorate. Forty-one percent of caucusgoers in 2016 in Nevada were nonwhite - 19% Latino, 13% black, 4% Asian. Bernie Sanders has been testing really well with Latinos and did well with them in 2016. But black voters shouldn't be overlooked, either. They broke overwhelmingly - three-quarters - for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they're who put her over the top for her 5-point win in that year.

KING: Miles, you, of course, have been in Nevada the past few days. The state, as Domenico mentioned, had early caucusing, which ended on Tuesday. Turnout - it was high, right?

PARKS: Yeah, it was. I mean, like Domenico mentioned, we're headed toward a record turnout here, which is great from a participation standpoint. But it also means there's a lot of data that needs to end up in the right place because all those early votes that were cast over those four days need to be sorted and funneled to their correct precincts to actually be counted on caucus day on Saturday.

KING: And in the meantime, Nevada is using new technology to count those votes. It's - when we compare what's happening in Nevada to what happened in Iowa, what kind of technology are we talking about? And are there big differences?

PARKS: So the party is really adamant that this is not an app. They're trying to differentiate themselves from what happened in Iowa as much as possible. Basically, they're distributing thousands of iPads and having precinct chairs use a set of Google forms that have been customized for this caucus process. The tablets integrate the early voting data as the precinct leaders go through the process.

But with how many precincts there are - more than 2,000 across the state - there are bound to, obviously, be some issues with the new technology being brought in. Even though the party says they're hosting dozens of trainings live and on the Web, this is still a process that was finalized less than a week ago.

I talked to Paul Gronke, who's a political science professor at Reed College, and he told me just how uncommon it is for new technology to be introduced this way into an election this late in the game.

PAUL GRONKE: Most election officials will tell you that you don't want to put in place new technology even during a competitive election year. Here we have a highly competitive presidential election and technology coming into place just a week or two before the caucuses.

PARKS: It's another reminder that these caucuses are run by the parties in these states, not by election officials who do this for a living.

KING: And it raises a question of whether or not the technology is secure because in Iowa, you and others reported that the app was not, in fact, entirely secure.

PARKS: Right. Yeah. Security experts seem to think that the Nevada system is better. We know it's going to be using these - this Google system, which is good. It's not being run by some unknown company like was the case in Iowa, where we were just left hoping that they had put the resources into securing the software. I talked to Betsy Cooper about this. She's the executive director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub.

BETSY COOPER: I vastly prefer this solution to others that Nevada could have chosen. But I do worry that the amount of testing that has gone in is minimal. And the amount of time for security professionals to study how this might be made vulnerable has been very limited.

PARKS: It is worth noting that everything the precinct leaders are going to be using these iPads for on caucus day can be done on paper. So even if there's an emergency - if the iPads don't work for whatever reason or if the precinct leaders just prefer to do it the old-fashioned way - they will have those options.

KING: OK. They've got a backup. How are Democrats in the state feeling after Iowa?

PARKS: I think they're feeling really nervous. They do not want a repeat. And, to be honest, that can be a good thing. They seem to be at least grappling with the worst-case scenarios in a way that Iowa Democrats were not at this stage, you know, a couple weeks ago. But it is important to remember that there was a lot of anti-caucus sentiment floating around in this state still from the 2016 election cycle. I talked to Dan Lee about that. He's a political science professor at UNLV.

DAN LEE: You know, there's bubbling desire for a more inclusive process, and that's primaries versus caucuses are going to be more inclusive.

PARKS: Lee said, basically, that if this process on Saturday does not go perfectly, it's only going to intensify the spotlight on all of the issues related to caucuses in this state.

KING: Domenico, just quickly, Tamara Keith talked to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. She asked him about the caucus system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRY REID: Well, I will talk about that after Super Tuesday, you know, when we get California and Texas out of the way. I'll talk about that later. But right now, we're going to make the best we can of the system we have.

KING: Still a problem for Democrats, yeah?

MONTANARO: Yeah. And look. Reid is always the old boxer, you know, always willing to mix it up. And he said that given Iowa's problems, maybe Nevada should go first. But let's see how it goes first.

KING: Domenico Montanaro and Miles Parks, thanks, guys.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.