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'Uncharted Territory’ With Elections Stressed By Pandemic And Protests

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The nine presidential primaries on June 2 occurred under crisis conditions not seen in America in 50 years—not since 1968, when protests, crackdowns and violence surrounded the presidential election—according to field reports from voting rights lawyers and advocacy groups.

Non-white voters in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Pittsburgh said that they were intimidated but persevering to cast ballots inside municipal buildings that were also local police headquarters—some of them the same police departments that have been using excessive force to break up protests surrounding George Floyd's death.

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Time Is Running Out For Mail Balloting In June 2 Primary States

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In Pennsylvania, a presidential swing state that will hold primary elections on June 2, some election officials and voters are already expressing concern that time is running out to handle a historic jump to voting from home in the pandemic—possibly disenfranchising many voters.

Tuesday, May 26—one week before the primary—was the last day for voters to request a mail-in ballot. But "thousands of Pennsylvania voters might not get their ballots in time to actually vote," the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Local election officials had been working "16 hours a day to try to keep up" with processing ballot applications, the Inquirer reported, even as the mayor redeployed city workers to help.

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Why Absentee Voting Is A Nationwide Challenge

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

More than 30 statewide elections will be held in the 91 days from May 19 to August 18, previewing how unfamiliar or difficult absentee voting may be across America this fall.

The next big test is June 2, when eight states and the District of Columbia hold their presidential primaries. Despite President Trump's claims that absentee voting cannot be trusted, red-run states (Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota) holding primaries that day have more experience with voting by mail and voters dropping off ballots at polling places than blue states and territories (Maryland, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and D.C.). Only one state in this group, purple Montana, has held an election where most people voted absentee.

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Are We Headed Toward Another Bush-Gore Impasse In November 2020?

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

With six months to go until November's 2020 election, dozens of America's top legal minds convened to consider what would have been unthinkable before Donald Trump's presidency. They gathered to brainstorm what could be done to prevent the country from descending into a "civil war-like scenario," as one participant put it, if Trump and Joe Biden both claim that they won the presidency-and won't back down.

Their May 4 teleconference parsed a series of nightmare scenarios in the aftermath of the November 3 election that would lead to competing Electoral College results being sent to Congress from battleground states-one issued by a Republican legislature backing Trump, and another issued by the Democratic governor backing Biden.

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Ohio Primary Raises New Election Worry: Rejected Provisional Ballots

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Ohio's Democratic presidential primary winner was never in doubt, but its voting process was.

The April 28 primary, the second statewide vote-by-mail contest since the pandemic interrupted the 2020 election, highlighted new complexities facing voters if the nation shifts to mostly absentee voting this fall.

In addition to postal delivery delays possibly disqualifying hundreds of thousands of ballots—as was seen in Wisconsin's April 7 primary—Ohio's saw legally registered voters who waited until the eleventh hour to vote wrestle with the vote-by-mail process and get prevented from casting a ballot that would be counted.

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In Some Red States, Partisan Officials Blocking Mail Ballots

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Across America, election officials responsible for the details of running elections have a clear idea of what is needed to shift to mostly mail-in voting in upcoming spring, summer and fall elections to protect voters from the coronavirus. But pockets of conservatives are resisting their advice.

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New Voting Rights Battles Erupting In Key Swing States

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

When the 2020 election season resumes in Ohio on April 28 and continues in nearly half of the states through July, Americans will see if new voting regimens instituted in response to the pandemic will help voters or preview state-by-state partisan battles over voter turnout.

Already there are troubling signs that the past decade's voter suppression battles will continue and accelerate in battleground states. Wisconsin's April 7 primary, the month's only presidential contest that was not postponed by the pandemic, is exhibit A. However, as 24 states and territories will hold primaries and caucuses in coming weeks, and other elections this summer, Republicans in some states are already tilting the rules and means of voting to favor their base in the fall.

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Why Another New Voting System Caused Trouble On Super Tuesday

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

On the biggest day of the 2020 presidential season so far, Super Tuesday, America's biggest new voting system—in Los Angeles County—widely frustrated voters and poll workers in its debut in a jurisdiction that's more populous than 39 states.

Though the county had offered 11 days of early voting for the first time and spent millions to promote its new multilingual, user-friendly, part-paper and part-digital system, voters overwhelmed pinch points on Super Tuesday. Thus, as seen in other presidential contests in 2020, hours-long waits to vote repeatedly surfaced.

Voting Booth witnessed many possible reasons behind the delays. Inside the regional voting centers (replacing precincts) where any county resident could vote, technical problems shadowed the steps in the process. At the check-in desks, electronics linking iPads to voter rolls had connectivity problems. That difficulty slowed down the intake process, where poll workers were also juggling paperwork surrounding new same-day voter registration and changing one's political party.

By noon, county officials were telling national media that 20 percent of the machinery in the next step in the process—the sleek, user-friendly consoles that ran in many languages (using different alphabets) and thousands of local ballot styles—were not operating or were sidelined. At numerous precincts, poll workers were seen making adjustments to accommodate a steady trickle of voters over much of the day.

After 5 p.m., that trickle became a torrent. Voters, many of whom said that they hadn't thought of voting early and expected to quickly vote, found themselves in long lines that lasted an hour, 90 minutes, or more. Many centers—in low-income, middle-class and well-off neighborhoods—had to stay open until 10 p.m. to accommodate voters. Many people stayed in line, even after media organizations declared winners. But others could be seen leaving in frustration without casting a ballot.

It would not be fair to say that Los Angeles' debut was a complete failure. For many voters who did not experience delays or technical snafus, the most visible parts of the county's new system received high marks. Its check-in process, using iPads to look up a voter's registration information and then printing a single sheet of paper with a QR code (a dot-matrix-filled square), was not complex. Voters took that paper sheet and easily slid it into a ballot-marking console, where their choices came up on a touch screen. It ended up printing out their ballots after repeatedly asking voters to verify its accuracy. Voters said that they were pleased, even if poll workers helped them. Voters with disabilities said it was easy to use. Others liked that their ballots went into a semi-transparent bin.

However, there is an emerging national trend and red flag as the country looks to the fall's presidential, congressional and statewide elections. As new voting systems have debuted during the past month (in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, Los Angeles, and other Super Tuesday states such as North Carolina), the newest systems have tended to have some mix of delaying the process, frustrating voters and slowing reported results.

That emerging pattern suggests that voters seeking a change in officeholders next fall are facing a new layer of impediments atop older structural barriers—whether gerrymanders, strict voter ID laws, and other GOP-led restrictive voting options, rules and deadlines. If those older barriers collectively amounted to a 10 percent starting line advantage for the GOP among the most reliable voters to turn out in swing districts and swing states, the catalog of snafus shadowing the newest voting systems may raise that hurdle.

Whether effective investigations and remedial measures will be undertaken in the weeks ahead—starting with examining the operating logs on every machine that failed—is the key question. Beyond apologies and future assurances from election officials, the next test of whether those snafus could be fixed, or would likely recur in the fall, are local elections to be held this spring and summer—the next time this infrastructure is used.

In other forthcoming 2020 presidential primaries, where new voting systems will be used in some counties in swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania, it remains to be seen if problems that cropped up elsewhere will recur. While some of these issues have to be solved by technology experts, it's important to note that election officials need to pay greater attention to the public's inclinations and behavior.

In Los Angeles County, many voters, for whatever reasons, didn't choose to vote early. The same voting centers that sat empty for days were overwhelmed on Super Tuesday. Just because a system is designed a certain way, doesn't mean its users will do so. The voting systems debuting now will be with counties and states for years to come. But given the stakes of 2020's elections, there's little time left to fine-tune them.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Debut Of South Carolina’s Flawed New Voting System Is A Red Flag

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

When election officials in Richland County, South Carolina, where the state capital of Columbia is located, opened 152 polling places for the Democratic Presidential Preference Primary on February 29, they held their breath.

Richland County, a blue epicenter in a red state, has had a rough time with elections. Like other counties during this past decade, uncounted votes went unnoticed until gaps in oversight were corrected. But on primary day, elections officials—from those managing countywide logistics to volunteers working polls in schools, libraries, churches and firehouses—were hoping for a smooth start as a new generation of voting machines was debuting across their county and state.

South Carolina's all-new voting system was the first that debuted nationally in 2020. It had three stages: a check-in desk as before; a new touch screen computer console where the voter would make their choices and a ballot summary sheet would be printed out; and a new scanner where that ballot card's votes would be counted. Last summer, the state bought these components from Election Systems and Software (ES&S), the nation's biggest voting system vendor, for $51 million.

The new voting machines were simple to use and explain to voters. But they also were not trouble-free. By mid-afternoon, many precincts across Richland County saw one-in-five or one-in-six of its new ES&S devices experience a technical failure. Because the primary was a low-turnout contest with slightly above 20 percent of registered voters turning out (the state's Republicans opted not to have a 2020 presidential primary), the poll managers quickly adapted and kept the voting expeditious and cordial.

Voters did not appear to notice too many interruptions. But officials did as touch screens froze, unprinted ballot cards were spat out, and scanners repeatedly jammed. These issues were atop other concerns noted, such as inadequate privacy screens surrounding touch screens, conflicting instructions from ES&S on which side of the ballot card was to be scanned, and the portable touch screen's awkward shape for curbside voting in cars to assist voters with disabilities.

The rollout of the new machinery across Richland County was a reminder that getting voting to work well is often dependent on the system's designers and managers making the right decisions—at the key decision points—in the process. As primary day voting unfurled in one of South Carolina's largest metro areas, it did not pass that test—promoting questions about what caused it and what could be done before voting next fall.

"It would seem to me that we have seen significant device failure, not so much as to cause problems with running an election, but significant failure for brand-new equipment. The question is what caused it," said Duncan Buell, one of five Richland County Voter Registration and Elections Commission members and chair of the University of South Carolina's computer science and engineering department in Columbia.

Buell is among a handful of computer scientists nationally who have studied ES&S for years and has focused on how its systems tally votes. He had just spent five hours visiting 20 precincts, where he talked to clerks, poll workers, and voters and saw the problems—even writing down the serial numbers of sidelined machines to be examined later.

"We know we have a problem," he said. "We do not know about the cause."

There were clues. But South Carolina's statewide debut of a new voting system—the first state among a handful to do so in 2020—is more than a cautionary tale. It was the latest example, following the Democratic Party's presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, that deploying new voting technology can be unexpectedly marred.

A Hopeful Start

Early voting in South Carolina's Democratic primary began several weeks before at county offices in downtown Columbia. But the big test came on February 29 with precinct voting. The county had supplemented training materials provided by the state, which bought the voting system, programmed its ballot design and distributed supplies including the ballot paper to be used in the marking devices and scanners.

At local precincts, where most of the clerks and managers (their term for poll workers) were women with years of experience working polls, there was an expectation that voters would have to be walked through the new system. Nell Killoy, the clerk at Meadowfield Elementary School, was prepared. She helped an elderly man who came in after 10 a.m.

"So, slide it in, and it will pull it in for you," Killoy said, after handing him a long narrow sheet of paper to put into a slot in a ballot-marking console—ES&S's ExpressVote—that was dominated by a large touch screen. "Once it takes the paper, you will see your ballot," she continued. "Today, there's only one election we're voting in. So these are your choices."

On the screen were 12 presidential candidates—five of whom had already left the race. It took Killoy less than a minute to explain what to do. But the voter had a question. Should he slide his ballot into the scanner face up or face down? Killoy replied face down, for privacy—even though some ES&S materials had said face up.

Once he left with his ballot and headed for the scanner across the gym, she turned to Buell and quietly raised another privacy issue. The ExpressVote's computer screen—with the voter's selections—could be read from several feet away.

"We're trying to get creative about buying privacy screens," Buell replied, referring to the folded cardboard enclosures that partly encircle the ballot-marking device (BMD). He was exploring whether local businesses could provide an alternative to ES&S's options.

Buell had only begun his site visits across Richland County's southern tier. Before he finished, he would hear other poll managers bring up the privacy issue. He would also receive phone calls from national groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters asking whether the new scanners were properly reading the ballot cards—due to ambiguity about which side should face up. (He believed it didn't matter.)

At other precincts, clerks improvised to address some of these concerns. At one Richland County Library branch, precinct clerk Kimberly Richards, who teaches government at a Christian K-12 school, solved the privacy issue by lining up the BMDs so all the touch screens faced the wall—not the room's center. She praised the new machinery, compared to an older ES&S system they replaced.

"This is a dream compared to the nightmares of those other machines," she said, saying the replaced equipment took too long to set up, was heavy to move and had rickety legs that children would pull on. "The only thing with this, we made sure that we turned everything around for privacy."

While talking to Buell, a trickle of voters walked from one side of the room to the other to carry their ballot card to the scanner. Nobody appeared to be checking if the printout was correct before putting it into the scanner. When asked if voters were verifying their ballots, Richards said, "I haven't seen that… It's a robotic thing. Come in. Punch the button. [Then leave, thinking,] 'Okay, we're good.'"

At other precincts, voters were pleased to see a mix of paper ballots and touch screens.

"I thought the machines were super," said a woman trying to sign up people for the local Democratic Party's meetings. "I loved the machines. I feel like they were as safe as you can get. What do y'all think?"

"I'm a computer scientist who believes that we should get absolutely as much technology out of our elections systems as we possibly can," replied Buell, who introduced himself. "Because those devices can be hacked. They can be misconfigured. Interesting enough, there was a Twitter post this morning that said that hand sanitizer [in response to the coronavirus] will smudge the [printed ballot] paper and make it unreadable."

"I wonder if that's true," she said.

"It probably is, because it's thermal paper and printing on thermal," he replied.

But this voter was pleased with the new system.

"And I just feel that to do a duplicate paper ballot somewhere that presumably will be stored for some period of time is good," she added.

"If that's used for any purpose," Buell replied, drawing a quizzical look. "If there's some question or if there's a check. Does the paper actually match up with the results?"

His point was that the underlying ballot records and voting data were only useful if they became part of a routine process of verifying votes and fine-tuning the process.

"It couldn't hurt," she replied. "There's no downside to doing it."

Equipment Failures

By midday, a more disturbing trend emerged. At many precincts, at least one machine—either the ballot-marking device or the scanner (ES&S's DS200 model) that counted the ballot summary's votes, or, both machines, were malfunctioning in different ways.

By the time that Buell finished his rounds of 20 of the county's 152 precincts, every fifth or sixth new machine had a problem. The ballot-markers prematurely spat out the paper used to print summary cards or their computer screens had frozen up. The scanners had paper jams. A few poll managers told Buell that they had broken the seals to get inside the bin below the scanning apparatus to pull the paper ballot out of its jam.

"This is $51 million of new equipment," Buell said, after the sixth consecutive precinct with an equipment issue. "We should see minimal failures. We should be seeing one or two across the county, not one every precinct. This really is not a good sign."

Buell finished his site visits by checking in with Terry Graham, Richland County's Voter Registration & Elections interim director. Back at the county office, Graham was behind his desk juggling phones. He had a legal pad filled with notes about different precincts.

"Yeah, a similar pattern across the county," Graham said, putting down the phone and reeling off possible causes—what his staff had narrowed down as likely causes.

The state's vendor that supplied ballot-printing paper had used a heavier card stock for the first time—maybe causing the jams. Poll workers may not have been properly closing a bar on the scanner. The thumb drives installed in the ExpressVote BMD to program the ballot style had been mass-copied (this was a simple ballot—just one race) and may have been prematurely removed from a programming dock. Some poll managers hadn't used these machines before, despite several trainings.

After leaving the building, Buell said extreme skepticism was called for. If one new machine was not properly working in each of the county's precincts, that would be nearly a half-million dollars in gear that was underperforming in its first major test, he said. But, compared to earlier ES&S systems, there were more robust computer records on each machine that could be examined to find out what had happened.

"I don't think we know until we start looking at the event logs and start comparing notes with other counties," Buell said. "We have 45 other counties [in the state]. Let's see what they had. For the places that had these kinds of errors, would there be any commonality?"

On primary day, February 29, Buell said that it was too early to call anyone to get a larger perspective about the statewide debut of ES&S's new system—not on an Election Day. But he was hoping to get some answers—with an eye to correcting them in a few local elections to be held later this spring. When asked if primary day was an example of growing pains or a learning curve that accompanies any new system, he was clear.

"I'd call it a device failure," he said. "When it doesn't work, it's a failure."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Powerful New Film Documents 2018 Voter Suppression In Georgia

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

As the 2020 presidential campaign cycle grinds on, there's renewed concern about the 21st century's newest form of warfare: cyber-sabotage of government systems, including elections and online disinformation intended to incite unrest. But as Suppressed: The Fight to Vote, a documentary from Brave New Films, makes clear, partisan voter suppression tactics with 20th-century roots remain and can thwart multitudes of voters from changing their state's political leaders.

Suppressed: The Fight to Vote revisits the most visibly unfair election of 2018: the race for Georgia's governor between Republican Brian Kemp—then Georgia secretary of state and supervisor of its election apparatus—and Democrat Stacey Abrams, an ex-state legislative leader and voting rights activist who led one of the most vibrant grassroots campaigns seen in Georgia in many years.

The election, which put Kemp in the governor's seat and which Abrams did not concede, is a showcase of how legal technicalities and opaque bureaucracy ended up discouraging, disqualifying, and disenfranchising purple-state voters who sought a regime change.

"Pull back that veneer [of legal but opaque rules and officials who didn't help voters], and you see something really rotten happening," Carol Anderson, chair of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, says as the film opens. "It's almost like termites coming in. They're in the wood. They're eating the wood away. And you don't even realize your house is getting ready to collapse until it's almost too late."

Suppressed's storyline starts earlier in the decade. In 2013, a GOP-appointed majority on the Supreme Court gutted the core enforcement provision in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Its opinion said that racism in American society had passed. Thus, states and counties that had histories of racial discrimination in elections no longer needed to have any change in election laws and procedures vetted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

As Suppressed and many voting rights groups have noted, numerous red-run states that play outsized roles in national elections quickly implemented mundane-sounding, overly bureaucratic—but, as Anderson says, "lethal"—rules to suppress Democratic voting blocs. (The documentary cites Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, North Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia as targets of suppression.)

This history has been told before, but there is an undeniable power with seeing the faces and hearing the words of people who personally bore the brunt of a menu of suppressive tactics—people who are predominantly non-white. One cannot help but note that race and party are almost always synonymous in Georgia, as they are across much of America.

The documentary follows a chronology that peels back layers of GOP-led suppressive tactics, starting with those that laid a foundation for disqualifying Democratic voters. These include efforts to close longtime polling places in predominantly black and lower-income neighborhoods in locales such as Randolph County, Georgia, which, in a rare glimmer of hope, saw the local populace reverse those poll closures. "The incident that we experienced threw the spotlight on everything else that had been going on," Bobby Jenkins, a retired superintendent of schools, said. As the film notes, since 2012, Georgia has closed 214 polling places, with 75 percent of closed polls in African American communities.

The "everything else" that Jenkins refers to begins with the starting line of the voting process for individuals: voter registration. The voices of people who were infrequent voters but who received postcards saying that they could be taken off of county rolls followed. That little-understood process of purging rolls is legal, but not mandatory, under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Nonetheless, the intended recipients were confused, including seniors who started voting in the 1950s civil rights and the 1960s voting rights movements.

When these Georgians and others submitted more than 53,000 paper registration forms to county officials working under Kemp—instead of going online to register or to update their voter file information—they later found out that there was no state law requiring their applications be processed before the election that they wanted to vote in—2018's governor's race. That fall, crowds of otherwise eligible voters did not get a ballot.

There were other disqualifying moves that were legal but unethical. Thousands of infrequent voters were removed from official rolls because they hadn't voted recently. Other voters were delisted because there were discrepancies in the spelling of their names in the state's databases—notably driver's license records did not match voter registration files. Other people were delisted if their mailing address and the address on their voter registration (their domicile for voting purposes) wasn't the same—including soldiers in overseas war zones.

Again and again, the vast majority of those affected were from communities of color, not Georgia's better-off white communities. One can argue, as Republicans have, that it is a voter's responsibility to know the fine print of the process and to satisfy it. But the film makes clear that county election boards following Kemp's directives were not offering customer service to voters—or, later, helping voters to cast ballots that got counted.

Similar barriers were seen with people seeking to vote by mail, but who never received an absentee ballot. The film notes that more than 280,000 people wanted to vote by mail, but "tens of thousands did not receive them." The documentary has people recounting their phone calls to local election officials, who, in turn, replied that their request for an absentee ballot had been received, but they didn't know where their ballot was.

The hurdles kept coming. When it came to voting in precincts on Election Day, many precincts in communities of color did not have enough voting machines compared to precincts in white communities. That shortage, atop delays caused when people learned that they weren't listed on voter rolls—and protested—caused long lines to form. Many voters had to wait for hours. In some cases, people had to leave to take care of their family members or go to work.

When voters who were not on the rolls insisted on voting, they were given provisional ballots. These are ballots that combine registration information with a regular ballot. But the state requires those voters to return to county election offices within a few days with other ID before those votes are counted. For some people, doing that means lost wages, which is akin to a modern poll tax—the 19th-century practice of forcing black people to pay to vote.

These microaggressions kept coming and cascading. The film shows the grassroots energy of Abrams' campaign, which was history-making when compared to past Georgia elections. Never before was the state poised to elect an African American woman as governor. But come election night, the results reported Kemp leading by more than 50,000 votes.

Abrams would not concede the race. (Afterward, her advocacy group, Fair Fight, filed one of the most comprehensive voting rights lawsuits in recent years to redress a catalog of suppressive tactics.) The film closes with Abrams' defiant press conference that came after post-election challenges did not find enough votes for her. Recovering 50,000 votes is unheard of in post-election challenges.

"I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election," she said. "But to watch an elected official baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people's democratic right to vote has been appalling. This is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that."

Suppressed: The Fight to Vote briefly continues to make the point that these partisan suppressive tactics are not unique to Georgia. The documentary is more than a cautionary tale about voter suppression in one state that, had elections been fairer, would be politically purple as its populace has become more multiracial. The film is a reminder that in 2020 there are many ways to tilt the playing field to game election results.

Many of those suppressive tactics have been around for decades and endure because they are effective. These tactics have nothing to do with Russians or cyber-sabotage. They are as old as America itself—but the victims, as Brave New Films has shown so vividly, are ordinary Americans who believe in democracy's promise but typically are non-whites.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Election Officials Fear Nevada’s Early Vote Count Won’t Be Accurate

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As early voting began in Nevada’s 2020 Democratic presidential caucus, thousands of people had to wait for two hours or more before voting. The bottleneck was due to a shortage of pre-programmed iPads that the Nevada State Democratic Party gave volunteers to check in voters.

“I have been in line for one hour and 58 minutes. This is normal from what I can tell from this line today,” said a researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno, who didn’t want to give her name after voting on campus on February 15, the first day of the four-day early voting period. “This is my second voting location today. The line at the first one was even longer.”

“We’re excited. They’re all standing in line. They’re all very nice,” said Sarah Mahler, the UNR voting site lead and Washoe County Democratic Party chair.

“It’s never been done before in Nevada. It’s never been done before in our nation. It’s the first time we’ve utilized early caucus voting.”

Despite Mahler’s enthusiasm, there were signs that delays or problems counting early votes could shadow 2020’s third Democratic presidential nominating contest. These complications would unfold behind closed doors at vote-counting hubs run by the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP). The possible problems concern the system used to scan and count tens of thousands of paper early ballots, as well as the database tracking all of the voters and their votes.

Nearly 75,000 people voted early, the NSDP said. That process continues on Saturday, February 22, with precinct caucuses across the state.

Top party officials have not responded to numerous requests to comment about the last-minute voter-tracking and vote-counting system that it will be using after it jettisoned the same reporting and counting technology that failed in Iowa’s Democratic Party presidential caucuses on February 3.

“Nevada Dems remain committed to executing the most accessible, expansive and transparent caucus yet,” Alana Mounce, NSDP executive director, said in a “not for distribution” memo on February 14 that was a “ballot processing update.” It said party officials would scan the early voting ballots in two locations where few observers would be allowed to watch. Those observers would not include “the public or the press.

Leaders of the state party, not government election officials, are running the caucuses. That means that they had to create the entire voting system, from voter registration to the counting of votes. They have done that by hiring many private contractors and consulting with the Democratic National Committee’s technology staff to vet cybersecurity precautions. But other potential issues besides cybersecurity received less scrutiny.

“Running elections is hard. It is not for the faint of heart or rank amateurs. And it takes a lot of logistics to do it,” said Larry Moore, senior vice president of Voatz (a firm developing a smartphone voting system) and former CEO of Clear Ballot, which is the nation’s most comprehensive vote auditing system.

At an early voting site on Reno’s north side visited by Voting Booth (and elsewhere, according to media reports from Las Vegas), weary volunteers were seen skipping a key check-in step to alleviate the long wait to vote. (Voting site coordinators said the party underestimated the turnout and did not have more iPads to use to help check in voters.) Thus, the response at some early voting sites was to skip a check-in step that electronically tied voters to their filled-out ballots. That data is at the heart of the party’s digital vote-counting system.

After waiting in line, voters would first show an ID to check in with a volunteer. That party worker would check if that person was a registered voter by looking them up on a PDF document on a party-owned iPad. (If voters weren’t registered, they would be asked to fill out a state registration form and join the Democratic Party.) But there was supposed to be a second step before the voter was given a paper ballot. That step involved entering the voter’s identifying information, including a PIN number matching a sticker that the volunteers put on their paper ballot, into a Google form on another party-owned iPad.

Harried volunteers were seen skipping the Google form step to speed up the lines. That omission meant that the data that the NSDP planned to use to pair those voters to their ballots and choices ranking the candidates (a caucus is not a secret ballot and involves two rounds of ranked-choice voting) would be incomplete, unless other party workers later retraced and filled in those gaps.

The NSDP spokeswoman and its caucus director did not respond when asked to comment on this issue, which could complicate tallying the early voting results. But Mahler raised her eyebrows when told of this skipped step. At the early voting site that she was running at the university in Reno, volunteers patiently made sure that all voters verified their information and PIN numbers that were entered into the Google form.

The NSDP is creating two records of the early voting: a digital and a paper record. It plans to use only its digital system to count votes, at least in the first instance, according to the “ballot processing” memo to staff on February 14.

While national media have warned about “chaos” that could affect the voting and results after statewide caucuses on February 22—echoing Iowa’s meltdown when its digital counting systems failed—issues that might arise earlier in the process are being overlooked. The skipping of the Google form step (and thus omissions in the underlying data used to generate results) was only one of the signs that the system being used during early voting could face delays or produce inaccurate results.

Caucus voting is not the same as voting in a primary where there is only one round of voting and the candidate with the most votes wins. The caucus is not as simple. Early voters are asked to rank three to five presidential candidates on a paper ballot by filling in ovals in rows ranking their choices next to a candidate’s name. Their first choice who gets 15 percent or more of the vote in their precinct is counted.

The “not for distribution memo” from NSDP executive director Mounce makes it clear that the party will scan the early paper ballots to analyze the ranked choices and tabulate the results. (Mahler, the Washoe County Democratic chair, reiterated the party plans to import those local early voting results onto the iPads that all of the NSDP precinct chairs will use in the February 22 statewide caucuses.)

But the party has released no details on that scanning operation, and the little that’s known about it worries seasoned election experts. Some career election officials who since their retirement from government have developed software for counting ranked-choice ballots (one version of which will be used to tally the early voting ballots, while another ranking system will be used in precinct caucuses) said that the NSDP is heading into problematic waters as it tallies early votes.

These officials and computer scientists who study voting all noted that the paper ballot used for the NSDP’s early voting did not have alignment or “timing marks” on its perimeter, which is how scanners in government elections are calibrated and tested to correctly read the ballots’ ink-filled ovals. (These marks help computers create a grid that then links ink-marked ovals to choices on the ballot—no matter what end of the paper is put into the scanner.) Also, the NSDP ballot is the size of half of a sheet of typing paper with fairly small ovals to be marked by pen, which additionally means there’s less leeway for the scanning software to read ovals.

“I would think it could be hard to scan ballots with no timing marks,” said Duncan Buell, chair of the computer science and engineering department at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and a county election official. “This ballot looks to have rather small places for marking. I can think that timing marks might be unnecessary if the bubbles were an inch big, but as we all know from scanning things on a photocopier, a skew of [a] quarter-inch or so can be routine.”

Reflecting on the absence of timing marks and small ballot design, Buell said, “I am surprised that Nevada would not have had that done by people who have a lot of experience in scanning.”

Other longtime election officials who have retired from government posts and are now working on ranked-choice ballot technology were worried that the NSDP was not using any system produced and certified by election professionals. They were worried that if Nevada experienced scanning problems—meaning it would have to revert to counting tens of thousands of early ballots by hand—that their work to nationally advance ranked-choice voting would be undermined.

“It would be very scary if they have come up with a home-made product [scanner and software] that they think will work,” said Gary Bartlett, who was North Carolina’s election director for two decades and now directs the Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Resource Center.

“It looks like a paper ballot that you hand-count,” said George Gilbert, who works with Bartlett, after seeing a photograph of the NSDP’s early ballot. “It would take a while” to do that should hand-counting thousands of ballots be necessary, he said.

Gilbert has developed an open-source software tool to use for counting in ranked-choice elections. But neither he nor Bartlett was aware if the NSDP was using that open-source software, he said, adding that Nevada party officials were not interested in working with the RCV Resource Center.

Nor is the state party working with other groups like FairVote, which also advises election officials on ranked-choice voting, according to its president, Rob Richie. FairVote provided memos to the NSDP, he said, but it also was not asked to help. “They’ve been pretty closed-lipped. They’re not consulting folks like us.”

Richie said that Bartlett and Gilbert were among the nation’s top technical experts on ranked-choice systems. Gilbert said that his counting software would work if all of the ranked votes were accurately entered into an underlying spreadsheet, which, presumably, is the role that the Google form would play for the Nevada party.

But that scenario presumes that the party’s data set was complete (an unknown number of volunteers skipped entering voter information and ballot PIN numbers into the Google form), and that all of the paper ballots were accurately scanned and successfully imported to the underlying Google form spreadsheet.

“I have no idea how accurately they can do that or how rapidly they can do it,” said Gilbert. “That’s the question that has to be asked: How will this ballot be scanned?”

Bartlett added that there were many things that could go “wrong” with scanners.

“There are so many small things that can go wrong with that type of voting system when you fill in an oval,” he said. “Sometimes you have somebody with dexterity problems who cannot mark the target area dark enough for the scanner to read. Other times you see weird things where you [as a human observer] can read a voter’s intent, but a scanner cannot read the voter intent.”

Other Possible Delays

Another issue that could cause delays in counting Nevada’s early votes would echo a problem faced in Iowa, where that state’s party found that it had understaffed its operations center—when it had to shift from relying on an electronic system that failed to manually recording results from precinct caucuses across the state.

If there was an issue with scanning ballots, the February 14 memo from Mounce said that a “Ballot Review Team comprised of the General Counsel for the Nevada State Democratic Party and two other individuals appointed by the [party] Chair… will review, by hand, each ballot.”

In other words, in the party’s two early vote-counting centers (that are closed to the press and public—one in Reno and one in Las Vegas), only three people, so far, are empowered to hand-count what could be many ballots out of the nearly 75,000 early votes cast.

FairVote’s Richie suggested that the NSDP was making more work for itself by having conflicting counting rules for early and regular caucuses. Mounce’s memo said that the party will not count any early ballot if a voter only made one presidential choice (although it will count their ballot if that voter picked the same candidate three times). In contrast, caucus-goers can leave after the first round, and their vote will count.

Curiously, Mounce’s memo also said that the “Ballot Review Team” would judge voter intent issues on early ballots, but the party’s “Nevada 2020 Caucus Recount Manual” said that post-caucus recounts filed by candidates “will not allow for challenges to the intent of a voter’s preference”—an apparent inconsistency.

But the big picture is that seasoned election officials and technology experts have doubts that the NSDP’s automated electronic vote-counting system for early votes will be accurate—because the paper ballots don’t have alignment markings, and because the underlying cast vote record (via Google forms) may be incomplete.

These concerns all come before Nevada’s statewide precinct caucuses on Saturday, February 22. If the party encounters any of these problems behind the closed doors of its counting centers, it is an open question as to whether or not it would publicly acknowledge them. The presidential campaigns can have one observer at the vote-counting centers, Mounce’s memo said. (Election protection lawyers working with the campaigns did not reply to requests to comment for this report.)

Meanwhile, as the party looks toward Saturday’s statewide caucuses, it sent out a release on Wednesday announcing the “State Party will host more than 55 trainings in person and online before Caucus Day” and included a link to its training hub. “We need Nevada Democrats across the state to volunteer to help us make our 2020 Caucus the most expansive, transparent, and accessible caucus yet,” the website said.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

Nevada Democrats Looking To Silicon Valley To Avoid Another Iowa

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As four days of early voting begin in Nevada’s 2020 Democratic Party presidential caucuses on Saturday, February 15, the big question is will there be breakdowns in the reporting and counting of votes that echo Iowa’s chaotic 2020 caucus earlier this month.

That question is not speculation as Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) officials dropped their plans to use the same precinct reporting app and backend tabulation system that failed in Iowa. The NSDP has been scrambling since to find a substitute for what were the same tasks as in Iowa, but with additional elements unique to Nevada’s caucuses.

Unlike Iowa, Nevada Democrats plan to offer early voting at 80 sites across the state. In addition to processing voter registration, party registration and ranked-choice voting at those early voting sites, the NSDP must securely store those early votes, and then send the local results to nearly 2,000 caucus chairs to begin the February 22 statewide contest.

The NSDP has been updating presidential campaigns with details on how they will do all this in recent days, as well as producing new training materials for volunteers who will run the early voting sites and chair the caucuses. The new system’s hub will be using party-owned iPads pre-loaded with registration and tabulation templates created by Google forms, according to various news reports.

In a remarkable development, it appears that Google is stepping in to prevent Nevada from experiencing the same vote reporting and counting problems as seen in Iowa—even as the NSDP is saying that it will also scan (and count) all of the paper ballots. The NSDP hasn’t released any details on the paper-based scanning process. Instead, it has told the campaigns and the press about its plans to use Apple and Google’s digital tools.

Two Systems—One Paper, One Online

Nevada Democrats have required caucus states to have a paper trail of all votes. In Iowa and Nevada, participants are to fill out and sign presidential preference cards. Party-run caucuses are not secret ballots. Caucus chairs collect these cards and also fill out a results summary sheet that they and campaign representatives must all sign.

But it appears that the primary way that the Nevada State Democratic Party will be reporting and tallying votes is not by examining these paper records, but by using the party-provided iPads and Google forms. In short, there will be two evidence trails created—one paper, one digital. Iowa had a similar system, but it did not expect to have to fall back on the paper to tally its results.

Google’s eleventh-hour entry into the Nevada caucus is potentially very significant. It appears that the Nevada Democrats will use Google forms as a key input for voter registration and also for the recording, counting and reporting of precinct totals and compiling the statewide results. This is in addition to whatever paper records are created.

During the February 11 New Hampshire primary, I had the good fortune to talk to Michael Glover, a PhD engineer and software writer who had worked at Google and was familiar with Google forms’ strengths and weaknesses. He was working with officials in Durham, New Hampshire, and running real-time audits of the same-day voter registration records and ballots cast there. Durham is where the largest University of New Hampshire campus is located and is an epicenter of the state’s student voting.

“If I were to design the ideal system, I’d have it based entirely on paper,” he said. “You get a ballot. You mark it. You have these registration forms—they’re all paper. And you maintain custody of the paper… You can feed thousands of ballots into a scanner. You can count everything. You can manually verify the counts against various segments.”

“If they design a system that does everything based on paper with these various acceleration mechanisms, then it is brilliant,” Glover continued. “But if they are actually representing the fundamental information, not on paper but electronically, I get really scared, because there are all kinds of ways to hack it—even Google forms.”

Glover explained that using Google forms creates a very simple interface for people to use—launched by a URL or website link—and then puts all of their information into what is essentially a giant spreadsheet. This is the same way that central vote-counting systems work, producing one document filled with rows of precincts and columns of voted choices.

Glover explained the steps Nevada Democrat party officials were likely to take using Google forms.

“You create a form. You’ve got box, box, box. And a box might be a name or your registration information. It might be a Democrat or Republican, or a number [ranking the candidate],” he said. “You can send that form to all of the data entry people [running early voting sites or caucuses]. It pops up as a form on your computer. And you go, ‘select, select, select, click, submit,’ and that will appear as a row on a [backend] spreadsheet. That’s what [using] Google forms does for you. And this form that popped up originally, as well as the spreadsheet, are both represented by URLs.”

Using the system could be a smart solution, Glover said, but there were security risks—especially if someone who wanted to meddle found the URLs. (In Iowa, Trump backers learned the call-in number to the state party’s hotline and intentionally started calling in to thwart the speed of the reporting of precinct results after its digital reporting system failed.)

“If you have that URL, and they didn’t set all the permissions right, conceivably you could throw new data into the spreadsheet, delete data from the spreadsheet or generate false submit buttons. That’s my fear,” Glover said. “If a URL gets loose, and the permissions get out, people can start pouring data in there. Or just create a lot of havoc—enough to just disrupt the process—which, if you were an attacker, would be a victory.”

When asked about potential competition for bandwidth, Glover said that Google forms used “relatively few bits” and said that Wi-Fi was a better platform for transmitting data than cell phones. (Voting security experts contacted by this reporter cringed when told the early voting and precinct totals could be sent on the same pathway as cell phones.)

While the data going into Google forms can be disrupted, Glover said that the way that information is constantly updated in the cloud means that the spreadsheet’s entries could be reverse-engineered to see when something bad may have occurred.

“You end up with a spreadsheet in the cloud,” he said. “The wonderful thing about a Google spreadsheet is anytime you do it [enter data], it will record the history, so you can walk backward and see each of the entry events. So it’s auditable.”

What Else Can Go Wrong?

There have been plenty of reports by national media organizations that have highlighted potential worries about difficulties that users of Nevada’s substitute system might face.

Those worries range from frustrations or mishaps that come from unfamiliar software, to deeper systemic issues such as whether there will be competition for Wi-Fi at caucus sites (which was an issue in Iowa as many voters were on devices using Wi-Fi), to whether there will be adequate security protections surrounding access to the counting system’s backend.

There are other complicating factors that have nothing to do with the NSDP’s efforts to retool its caucus voting system at the eleventh hour.

This week, the Nevada Secretary of State’s office—which said after Iowa’s debacle that it would have “no role whatsoever” in the Democratic Party caucuses, as they are party-run contests—announced its statewide voter database, which the NSDP will use to preload its iPads, contained party affiliation errors. Voters were listed in the wrong party.

A likely consequence of those glitches would be a potentially longer check-in time at the early voting and caucus sites. At worst, Nevadans would have to re-register as a voter and declare their affiliation as a Democrat before being able to participate. (This issue was seen in Iowa, which didn’t take too long to sort out at the entrance to caucus sites.)

But the biggest concerns are not problems that individual voters might face, but problems that could scale and impede many precincts from reporting and the party from producing statewide totals. The NSDP and Democratic National Committee have been working very hard behind the scenes to make sure what occurred in Iowa doesn’t repeat—including bringing DNC staff in from Washington to assist the Nevada state party.

The four days of early voting started on Saturday, February 15, and run through Tuesday, February 18. Depending on what unfolds in early voting, it is possible that there will be more changes to NSDP’s process and technology before its statewide caucus on February 22.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

How New Hampshire Students Fought Vote Suppression With Turnout

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In 2016, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate by a 1,017-vote margin. Even though both parties spent millions on the campaign, the key to Hassan’s victory was thousands of college and university students who registered to vote and cast ballots on Election Day.

The power of student voting was noted by Republicans who took over New Hampshire’s legislative and executive branches in early 2017. They soon passed a law to suppress student voting with a sly hidden poll tax. It required out-of-state students who voted and drove to get a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their cars with the state within 60 days. The law has been challenged in court, and litigation is ongoing.

“The students don’t like this because it is a lot of money in New Hampshire,” said Linda Rhodes, who co-founded New Hampshire’s Indivisible chapter and has been working with a handful of state and national groups to encourage student voting. “So what the New Hampshire Youth Movement and the New Hampshire College Democrats and the NextGen people are doing is giving very clear information to the students. They are saying, ‘Don’t worry. You can vote. Just go vote.’ And you shouldn’t have to worry about this. This law is in the courts anyway.”

The epicenter of the surge that elected Hassan was Oyster River High School in Durham. It is a short walk from the University of New Hampshire’s largest campus and saw more than 3,000 students show up to register and vote in November 2016. In 2020’s first presidential primary, the open question was: Would months of student organizing overcome partisan voter suppression?

In Durham’s Oyster River High School, the answer wasn’t clear at first.

By 3:30 p.m. on Election Day 2020, as several town officials stood behind tables in the gym where a trickle of people fed hand-marked paper ballots into an Accu-Vote scanner, a few remarked that the student turnout so far seemed less than in past years. Barely 800 people had shown up to register that day and to vote. Durham officials set up a massive registration operation in a nearby lunchroom, where 12 long tables with two clerks at each awaited walk-ins to help them to register.

“Normally, we expect by noontime that it’s pretty steady with students, and it just hasn’t seemed to be,” said Lorrie Pitt, Durham town clerk and tax collector, who turned to Moderator Christopher Regan. “Do you think they’re not busing them” from UNH on campus transit?

“Typically, by three in the afternoon, we are usually getting a pretty steady flow of people, and it goes through to six or a little after,” Regan said. “Then we usually have a big enough python [snake-like line] that we are then [able to] work through.”

But two hours before the close of voting, something not evident inside the town’s sprawling setup had shifted. A surge began. A line of mostly students snaked into the same-day registration center. The town’s deputized staff went to work. Those waiting in line faced few delays.

The people who showed up also faced no barriers when it came to filling out voter registration forms, declaring party affiliation, and possibly signing an affidavit if they did not have documents with them attesting to their citizenship, residency or age. Once the paperwork was done, they were given a green slip and told to go to the gym and present it, and their ID, to get a primary ballot and vote.

“It was pretty straightforward. You could just go in. They sat you down. And if you didn’t have a passport to prove your citizenship, you just had to sign an affidavit,” said Audrey Coleman, a UNH student from nearby Manchester. “The girl next to me had to fill out an affidavit, but it was still pretty straightforward for her too.”

“I was told before that I just needed my driver’s license,” said Emma Pryor-West, a UNH student and political science major from Massachusetts. “But they said you needed your passport or birth certificate to get through. They just made us sign an affidavit, so it was pretty quick and easy.”

Pryor-West said that she wanted to vote in New Hampshire because its primary had more impact than voting in Massachusetts. She appreciated the ease of same-day registration, but said that New Hampshire’s paperwork had apparently increased.

“I had to write a paper on voter registration in New Hampshire,” Pryor-West said. “I feel like in years past it was more lax. That’s what I’ve been told by other people. But I’m from Massachusetts. I had registered in that state, which is much harder than here because there is no same-day registration, and you also have to have proof of residency and not just proof of domicile [which UNH gave to its students].”

When the Durham precinct closed, 1,456 people had registered that day and voted—out of 5,583 total voters. Its Democratic primary had 4,922 voters. Its Republican primary had 661 voters.

Overcoming a Shrewd Barrier

The GOP law targeting student voters is sly because New Hampshire, otherwise, is a voter-friendly swing state. It is one of the few GOP-led states with same-day voter registration. It also is among the few states that allow registrants to sign an affidavit if they lack any documents attesting to their identity, citizenship or age. In other words, there was no apparent Election Day obstacle to voting. But there can be additional expenses should new voters be out-of-state students who drive or own cars.

Notably, none of the documents or affidavits in the registration room at Oyster River High School made any mention of what follows after out-of-state students registered and voted—the 2017 law’s requirement that they get a New Hampshire driver’s license and register their car within 60 days. Durham officials weren’t mentioning it. And neither were students asking about it, said Ann Shump, one of Durham’s three voter checklist supervisors.

“Nobody in this room has asked about any of it,” she said. “We registered about 100 people on campus before the election. The last primary, four years ago, we registered 2,100 people. And 1,000 of those came after 4 p.m. So far, it [the 2020 turnout as of 4 p.m.] doesn’t compare to that.”

It’s unclear why student voting patterns differed slightly in 2020. It may have been initially slower because there was not a contested Republican primary. A student surge came after classes ended, which Linda Rhodes attributed to grassroots organizing.

“The youth groups worked very hard to get out the vote and make sure HB 1264 didn’t make much of an impact,” she said after the polls closed.

In the months before 2020’s first presidential primary, student organizers across the state said that they had been pushing fellow students to vote. That effort was apart from the 2020 presidential campaigns and their efforts to use digital tools to track and turn out their base.

“Campus organizing is going to [be] a little bit different because, frankly, students are rather unresponsive with their data,” said Michael Parsons, New Hampshire College Democrats president, speaking at a Dartmouth College forum on Monday. “So you’re not going to have a lot of phone numbers. You’re not going to have a lot of emails. You’re not going to have an updated voter database, because everybody moves every year.”

“It’s more how we use relational organizing, how we’re using the infrastructure of our friends, of friends of friends, of these already established organizations on campus,” Parsons continued. “And in that way, if we’re texting other students, or using social media to promote this knowledge.”

Katie Smith, communication director for the college Democrats, said students generally knew that they had been targeted but weren’t aware of the specifics. That meant her group and others had to reach out and fill in those blanks.

“At the end of last year and early fall, most students were aware that something was happening with their right to vote, but they didn’t know what,” she said. “Throughout the fall and throughout this winter, we’ve been really boots to the ground in terms of, ‘You can vote in New Hampshire. This is what you need to vote.’ Most students at Dartmouth don’t have cars, but there are students in New Hampshire that do obviously.

“It’s more about informing them that they can vote, because the misconception was they are not able to vote at all—as opposed to the intricacies of ‘You may need to get a license.’”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Why Nevada Could Repeat The Iowa Caucus Fiasco

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

As new details emerge about what went wrong with the Iowa Democratic Party’s vote counting meltdown in its presidential caucuses, the Nevada State Democratic Party is racing to replace the app that failed in Iowa with new and untested online voting tools in its caucus on February 22—a scenario suggesting some difficulties seen in Iowa may resurface.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, where Bernie Sanders’ campaign has said it will seek a partial “re-canvass” (recount) after the IDP announced that Pete Buttigieg would probably receive 14 national convention delegates and Sanders would receive 12 delegates, the IDP has said that it will not be looking at the ballots (voter-signed presidential preference cards). Instead, the IDP will examine the summary sheets of vote totals signed by the caucus chair and campaign precinct captains, even though the New York Times has reported inaccuracies on those worksheets. That discrepancy implies that questions about the IDP’s vote counting will linger.

In other words, as party-run contests in Iowa continue and are poised to take the stage in Nevada, the riskiest, most controversial and possibly least assuring aspects of these 2020 elections are coming from decisions made by state party officials. These officials tend to be younger and more confident than skeptical of digital technology, and have sided with their vendors more than outside experts.

That state party role has not been recognized in the most detailed press reports offering explanations or more conspiratorial reports casting blame about Iowa’s meltdown. Yet top party officials in both states have resisted warnings from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) about the risks of debuting new digital voting systems. Those warnings have come from the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC), which oversees state delegate selection plans, the DNC’s technology staff, and an expert advisory board created by the DNC staff.

The RBC’s 2020 rules envisioned caucus states offering a remote participation option to voters who could not be physically present at the caucuses. But as the months progressed and the details of that system raised reliability and security concerns, the RBC reversed course. In late August, it rejected plans by Iowa and Nevada to offer voters a telephone keypad-based voting option. At the time, the RBC also warned these two states about using online voting systems.

However, Nevada and Iowa pressed ahead with retooling some of their digital voting systems, saying that these would be used by party officials and volunteers, not by voters. The states could push the edge of the envelope because the RBC has limited jurisdiction over how state party-run contests use technology.

“The Rules Committee jurisdiction has never involved counting the votes, because most of the time it is done by state law” affecting government-run party primaries, said Elaine Kamarck, an RBC member from Massachusetts and presidential scholar who said the panel’s main job is overseeing state plans to allocate delegates to the Democratic National Convention. “It never occurred to us to get into the business of [overseeing] vote counting.”

Thus, tech-friendly state party officials, more so in Nevada than Iowa, had a loophole of sorts and pressed on. The fact that state parties, not the DNC, pay for their presidential caucuses strengthened their resolve. So, too, did the months that they had spent developing the telephone voting option (before the RBC killed it).

As reported in most detail in the Nevada Independent, Nevada now plans to give every precinct caucus chair a party-programmed iPad that will import the results from four days of early voting (at the start of each precinct caucus), calculate the candidate rankings in two rounds of voting, and electronically file the results. (Iowa’s app failed to transmit these local results and to compile state totals.)

After the Iowa meltdown, Nevada State Democratic Party chairman William McCurdy II said in a statement, “We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus.” The Nevada Independent spoke to caucus chairs being trained in the newest system only days before it will debut. Those volunteers said that the party was describing the use of an iPad as not the same as an app.

“In the [training] video, a party staffer tells volunteers that the new mechanism ‘is not an app’ but should be thought of as ‘a tool,’” the Independent reported. “Asked by a volunteer how results would be transmitted from one place to another, the staffer demurred. ‘Those are all excellent questions, and we’re still working out some of the details around those so I’ll make sure that everyone has more information as we’re able to share it,’ she said.”

Late on Monday, February 10, four days before early voting is set to begin, the Nevada state party updated campaigns about their latest plans, according to the Independent. The party will be using party-provided iPads to check in voters using preloaded county voter rolls (as PDF files). Voters will fill out a paper presidential preference card, but also enter their information on the iPad as a Google form “which will be accessed through a URL,” the Independent reported, citing a party memo. Thus a paper and electronic record of their vote will be created.

The system is reliant on caucus chairs accessing Wi-Fi in 80 early voting sites across the state. It was not clear from the Independent’s report what elements of this system would be used or modified for use in hundreds of precinct caucuses on February 22. In Iowa’s precinct caucuses, getting online was an issue for several campaigns using sophisticated turnout-tracking apps, because attendees in those locations were widely using their phones and competing for the bandwidth.

The Nevada party was still recruiting precinct chairs for those caucuses, according to people with ties to Joe Biden’s campaign in New Hampshire. That update suggests that there may be issues with using an unfamiliar system while running the event.

Nevada party officials have not responded to Voting Booth’s request to comment.

Whether the DNC Rules Committee can step in and order Nevada to fine-tune the vote counting technology to be used—as it affects how 2020 national convention delegates are allocated—is an open question. Meanwhile, party officials from other states with government-run presidential primaries are watching and are frustrated.

“Just use paper ballots, count them by hand, and call in the results,” said an exasperated state vice-chair (a baby boomer) who said that she was friends with McCurdy, but was angry with her younger “techie” peers. (Those comments came before the latest details about Nevada’s early voting system were released.) The Iowa meltdown reminded her of the Obama White House’s rollout of the Obamacare website, where young staffers overlooked what could go wrong when a system debuts.

Not a Stop-Bernie Conspiracy

Iowa’s meltdown and Nevada’s continuing pursuit of untested digital voting tools are not, however, a stop-Bernie conspiracy by the DNC.

That allegation came from some progressives after the IDP app frustrated precinct chairs (many could not log in) and system software failed to tally results. Nor was it intentional sabotage because the CEO of the firm (ACRONYM) that funded the app’s developer (Shadow) is married to a Buttigieg consultant, nor because of meddling by Buttigieg’s wealthy donors, as others alleged.

“The DNC was doing what Bernie wanted. They were not trying to get rid of him,” said the state party vice-chair. “Accusing [DNC Chairman] Tom Perez of trying to get rid of Bernie Sanders is ridiculous. He has been trying to appease Bernie since the beginning.”

Those remarks refer to the DNC’s post-2016 effort to heal the divisions between centrists who supported Hillary Clinton and progressives who backed Sanders. The DNC’s Unity Reform Commission recommended, and the full DNC adopted, many of Sanders’ demands. The most high-profile was that so-called superdelegates (mostly elected officials who comprise one-sixth of the national convention delegates) will not get to vote on the first ballot—to elevate voters over party leaders.

Another Sanders demand, which is relevant for what is unfolding in 2020’s party-run caucus and primary states, is greater transparency in releasing the vote counts. In 2016, the IDP simply announced the delegate equivalents to their state convention without any further evidence. At 2:30 a.m. on the morning after 2016’s caucuses, the party chair announced that Clinton had won 699.57 “state delegate equivalents” while Sanders had won 695.49 equivalents.

Looking at 2020, the DNC and caucus state parties agreed to release the number of participants, results from two rounds of voting, and delegate allocations. That new transparency, in part, led Iowa and Nevada party officials to look to digital tools to accelerate more intricate reporting and statewide tallies.

Throughout 2019, party officials told the RBC that they were on track with their new voting systems, even though there was no finished product for the DNC’s technology staff to review until well into the fall. When cybersecurity exercises were finally held, they were done in academic settings—not in a real election with more voting-system stresses and unexpected snafus.

In other words, these state party officials were overly reliant on their contractors, some of whom had roles in Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, and some of who had connections in Silicon Valley, who were overpromising. That mistake is a rookie error in the world of election administration. And given the existing climate of paranoia and mistrust, it increases the odds that mishaps will undermine public faith in elections and the democratic process.

“Vendors promise you the world. They say, ‘Just try it.’ That doesn’t work with [career] election officials,” said John Lindback, the former state election director in Alaska and Oregon, who was worried about all of 2020’s party-run presidential nominating contests—continuing with Nevada and several other states.

“They’re setting themselves up for some issues,” he said.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Inside The Iowa Democratic Party’s ‘Boiler Room’ Meltdown

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The app and software that failed to report and count the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential caucus results were not the only miscalculation by the IDP and its vendor.

Its “boiler room” or secret operations center was unprepared to handle the chaos that ensued. Fewer than 100 computers and phones were set up for IDP volunteers to receive the results and complaints. IDP help desk materials anticipated problems with the app, including that some caucus chairs would end up calling in their results. The IDP’s instructions were complex, but they were also lacking some basics, according to experts in voting technology systems.

“In general, there is no documentation of what to do if various other problems arise,” said David Jefferson, a voting systems software expert who has studied and critiqued electronic election infrastructure since the 1990s. He is an executive board member of Verified Voting, a national advocacy group founded by computer scientists and academics.

“The universal answer seems to be, ‘If you have a problem, call in your results,’” he continued. “That might make sense if the app and the server were so robust that there were almost never any problems, and if the training of the caucus chairs was thorough so that they were all confident that they knew how to handle it. But apparently that was not the case.”

New revelations about the IDP “boiler room” offer important lessons. Nevada’s 2020 Democratic Party presidential caucus starts with early voting on Saturday, February 15. Its party officials have ditched their plans to use the same reporting app and system that failed in Iowa’s 2020 presidential caucus. While the Nevada Democratic Party has said that it might use paper-based voting in precinct caucuses, it has not released further specifics.

Meanwhile, DNC Chairman Tom Perez has called on Iowa’s state party to recount its results amid complaints from campaigns—a process that the IDP’s 2020 rules only anticipated if a campaign filed a formal request and paid for it upfront.

(On Thursday, reported that Donald Trump’s supporters apparently “flooded a hotline used by Iowa precinct chairs” after finding its number online. This was a development that nobody in state or national party circles overseeing the caucuses had voiced beforehand. Instead, they had focused on more complex cybersecurity threats.)

Inside IDP’s Boiler Room

The vote counting and help desk operations center was tucked into two conference rooms in the mezzanine above Veterans Memorial Hall at the Iowa Events Center—the opposite end of the same complex where a media filing center hosted TV networks whose analysts spent hours Monday night trashing the IDP for failing to release the caucus results. As the night unfolded, the party announced that irregularities in the counting, software glitches and jammed phones all collided and pushed the IDP to abandon using its results-reporting app and switch to compiling results from paper summary sheets from nearly 1,700 precincts.

I found the boiler room on Wednesday. While IDP officials were continuing to compile results in one room, this reporter saw the other room. It was empty but still set up as an operations center. It had computers, phones, routers; training materials on desks, help desk scripts and forms for taking caucus results and other complaints; an “app FAQ” sheet for caucus chairs who experienced problems and other instructions on wall posters.

The training materials were for a session that occurred on Sunday—one day before the 2020 caucus. An agenda said it included a “brief description of the caucus night set up,” “boiler room set up” work shifts, rules in the room, phone security and questions. Voting Booth took photos and shared them with Verified Voting’s Jefferson for context.

Jefferson concluded that the boiler room had less than half the staff that it needed at peak hours to field calls; that its FAQ and other help desk materials omitted key information—even as it anticipated that caucus chairs would encounter problems logging in and using passwords. He also noted what appeared to be additional missing elements that added to the congestion and reporting meltdown, such as the app not saying that results had been successfully received, which prompted caucus chairs to call in to confirm that they had been received—further clogging the phone lines.

The operations center was a windowless rectangular room filled with a half-dozen rows of long desks covered in black tablecloth. On each desk sat two or three laptop computers and a phone, all hardwired by Ethernet cables to a server in the room. The front desks had piles of a “2020 Precinct Caucus Guide” that summarized procedures, piles of forms to report results and other problems, and red and blue folders with these documents and others—such as app FAQs and phone scripts.

The front-facing wall had hand-lettered posters. One said, “NO photos can be taken in this room!!! NO social media usage allowed at all!!!!” There also were reminders for volunteers “to confirm [precinct] ID,” to tell caucus chairs where to find a “Precinct PIN” in their materials (to be able to log in using the app), and an email address where the chairs were to send photos of the “caucus math worksheets.” That last document had the key results from two rounds of caucus voting in each of Iowa’s 1,678 precincts. It was what the party scrambled to collect to verify and redo the statewide count, after finding tabulation errors from the app and data-entry mistakes by boiler room volunteers (as reported by the New York Times).

Together, if both conference rooms were similarly equipped (this reporter was escorted out when approaching the second room), that meant there were fewer than 100 computer stations ready to receive precinct results and handle complaints. All calls came in via the same telephone number. Once a caucus chair with results got through, IDP volunteers were told to fill out a form “completely… [and] confirm each number by reading it back to the precinct leader.” If the call was reporting something else, labeled “general public issues” or “temp chair issues,” volunteers took briefer notes and were told to “tell the caller [that] they will be called back ASAP.”

The party knew the app would be problematic. Their materials listed at least 10 different problems with the reporting app, including: “Can’t Sign In,” “Wrong Pin,” “Password,” “2 Factor Authentication,” “Error Message,” “Calculation Issues,” “Screen is Frozen,” “Can’t Take a Picture” and “Satellite Caucus Reporting [from outside the state].”

The “App FAQ” anticipated more specific problems, such as caucus chairs not finding their precinct IDs or PIN numbers to log in, and PIN numbers not working. The FAQ said there were two different PINs that the chairs had to use, one to identify the precinct and another to report the results. If they cannot get into the system’s backend with the PINs, the FAQ said, “They’ll need to close out of the app and restart the login process.”

It described additional steps “if they’re on a two-factor authentication screen.” If they could not log in, it said, “If for some reason they’re not receiving the code via text after a couple of tries, they should call in their results.”

The FAQ also said the caucus chairs could not go backward through the screens if any error was made. “Once they move on from a screen, they cannot go back to a previous screen and they cannot restart the caucus as they could in the test mode,” it said. “Every screen will ask them to confirm their numbers before moving on. If they made an error on any step, they should call in their results.” (Emphasis in original.)

A Complex Process Without Snafus

Verified Voting’s Jefferson called the app and these details “a human interface disaster.”

“One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the discussion under ‘Can I go back while reporting in the app?’ It says that no, you cannot go back to previous screens when using the app. It says, ‘If they’ve made an error on any step, they should call in their results,’” he said. “There is no recovery from error! No ‘undo.’ No ‘go back.’ They cannot even start over and ‘restart the caucus.’”

“This, of course, is a human interface disaster,” he said. “It is hard to fathom how anyone could design and field such a rigid, fragile app, [so] unforgiving, and expect hundreds of people who have never used the app before to be successful at it. This feature alone would likely cause most of the caucus chairs to call in their results instead of using the app, adding to frustration and phone-in volume. This alone should have caused the IDP to completely reject the app.”

Jefferson also said that the FAQ omitted basics, such as including different answers for people using Apple and Android operating systems. It did not mention how caucus chairs were to download the app, which would be different on Apple and Android phones.

But the larger point was the IDP was understaffed to handle the breakdown that ensued when it had to shift from an app-based reporting system that it knew was problematic.

Jefferson, doing rough calculations, said that at best, each call should have taken 5 minutes. Of course, once the apps started failing and the calls cascaded (apart from any interference intentionally clogging lines from Trump supporters), the volume went up quickly and a backlog developed that lasted as long as 90 minutes.

Under the best of circumstances, it would have taken five or six hours to efficiently handle the telephone reporting, he said, noting that the volume of information collected in 2020 was much more than in past years. The IDP was seeking to be more transparent. It was collecting and planned to announce four figures for every caucus: the participant numbers, first alignment results, realignment results and delegates awarded.

Jefferson suggested that the IDP had half as many help desk stations as it needed. But the IDP never expected that it would have to abandon its app and software backend. On the Friday before Monday’s caucus, IDP Executive Director Kevin Geiken was upbeat about the system. When pressed by this reporter about the “worst-case scenario,” he said that it would take one-to-two days to count the paper “caucus math worksheets” submitted in person or by emailed photos from across the state.

The IDP has not responded to my inquiries since Monday’s caucus.

Up Next: Nevada’s Caucuses

In response to the Iowa meltdown, Nevada State Democratic Party officials have said that they were abandoning the use of two different apps from the same vendor that failed in Iowa, and were looking at reverting to a paper-based voting and counting process. The NDP did not respond to Voting Booth’s inquiries about its likely shift to paper, which would begin with early voting that starts on February 15.

The party had planned to use 1,000 party-owned digital tablets for those participants to vote online, according to the Nevada Independent. It had also planned on using the same app as in Iowa to send its early voting results to its caucus chairs at 250 sites at the start of the regularly scheduled caucus process on February 22, and to transmit the results once the caucuses were finished.

The Nevada Democratic Party, like that of Iowa, intended to have every caucus participant fill out a paper presidential preference card, and for caucus chairs to compile results summary sheets that every candidate’s precinct captain would sign to affirm the results. But the system to file those results, and then compile and report statewide totals, is yet to be seen.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Behind The Iowa Caucus Crash, A Simple Technology Glitch

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The electronic system used by the Iowa Democratic Party on Monday night to compile its 2020 presidential caucus results was only counting “partial data,” Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price said in a statement Tuesday morning, giving the most specific clue about what went wrong.

That partial data—called a “coding error” in the most recent national press reports—was most likely tied to three different sets of figures that the IDP planned to release for the first time after the caucuses ended, but withheld due to what the IDP called unspecified “inconsistencies.” 

The state party announced at midday that the “majority” of results will be released at 4 PM Central Standard Time.

Those three sets of “inconsistent” figures — details of which the Iowa party has never released in previous cycles — could only refer to steps in the process where the number of participants and the votes cast in two consecutive rounds of caucus voting did not all match.

Iowa Democratic officials haven’t said more yet about what went wrong with the tabulating system software, which was never tested before on the scale used Monday. evening But it is possible to identify one discrepancy in the numbers that would have been reported via the IDP’s app to its software and system and could have caused the “partial” data and “inconsistent” analyses. 

A likely cause of “partial data” flaw may have been the process itself, according to my own eye-witness observations and assessment (based on undertaking Iowa’s caucus chair training and numerous interviews with top party officials, including a demo of the app last week).  

The “partial data” or data mismatch may have little to do with the app used by caucus chairs to report the winners in two consecutive rounds of voting and the resulting delegate allotments (although caucus chairs and campaign precinct captains had problems with getting online and logging into systems.) A more likely problem was simply that not everybody attending a caucus voted in the second round, if their top presidential choice was disqualified in the first round. 

That pattern of drop-off voting could have produced the “inconsistencies” that were seen by the IDP boiler room. In the demo by Iowa Democratic Party executive director Kevin Geiken, the app showed when too many participants went into its calculator (called an “overcount” on the app), but it didn’t report undercounting or intentional drop offs in the second round.

This very scenario was seen in Polk County’s 57th precinct in Des Moines, when 11 voters of the 385 attendees did not vote for another candidate in the realignment round—after their first presidential choice was eliminated. 

Those voters mostly came to vote for Joe Biden and were overheard saying that they could not vote for anyone else, especially after the race’s other centrist, Amy Klobuchar, also had been eliminated in the qualifying first round. They didn’t want to cast a vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the realignment.

In other words, they came and they voted. Their first choice lost, or at least wasn’t “viable” in that room. They didn’t pick another candidate. Thus, there were gaps between the number of participants in the two rounds of voting. That could account for tabulation software in the IDP’s electronic backend seeking balanced totals — via an app on each of 1,678 chairs’ smartphones — and reporting figures that didn’t match or balance out. 

Or these same voter fall-off numbers also could have appeared in called-in results that the state party was receiving, if the caucus chairs could not connect with their app to the party’s backend. That also happened in Polk-57, where Caucus Chair John McCormally could not get his app to log in before and during the event, despite trying several times.

So McCormally ran the caucus using pens, math, and paper, and then called in results. In his case, McCormally reported the results quickly (possibly because his wife was a volunteer there). But other chairs across the state encountered waits of 90 minutes before talking to the party

This quagmire deepened inside Democratic Party headquarters when it had to assess the growing problem. They had to quickly find a solution or use a backup plan, which top party officials had bullishly predicted only a day earlier that they would not need. The backup entailed gathering from every caucus chair the paper summary sheets that list the voting round totals and delegates won.

The summary sheets, signed by precinct captains from all the campaigns, were to be turned in to Democratic county chairs (along with presidential preference cards filled out by voters), according to the caucus training materials. The county chairs, in turn, were to turn in all their paper records to Iowa Democratic Party headquarters either in person or by mail. 

Before Caucus Night, Geiken was asked about worst-case scenarios in a demo of the caucus app that only two reporters attended—including this writer. It might take a day or two to physically collect and recount the full paper vote record, should the electronic system be jettisoned for whatever reason. He emphasized there would be a reliable and accurate count, but it might not be as fast as expected. 

The state party’s announcement early on Tuesday that the “majority” of votes would be released suggests that it made a dash to collect and count as many ballot summary sheets as possible. 

When I covered this ‘what comes next’ scenario before Iowa’s caucuses, few state and national party officials imagined that the reporting system would melt down. They expressed great confidence in the party’s voting system and its private contractors. (Caucuses are not run directly by government election officials but use rented voting systems.) 

Even hours before the caucuses began, these officials downplayed reports that some precinct chairs were having trouble signing onto the caucus app, as well as the possible consequences.

But voting technology experts predicted these problems. Reliability issues are to be expected when a new system debuts, especially one that has not been tested at scale and when its users encounter access issues (insufficient bandwidth and unable to log in) atop software glitches. That is why government election officials like to debut new voting systems in low-profile races.

Iowans and everyone else will get to see accurate results eventually. That is a silver lining.  The IDP will be using a paper trail and that paper trail will be more detailed than in any past caucus.

The only other silver lining might be the realization by national media outlets that it may not be possible to report fast and accurate results on election nights. Many other states will introduce new voting and reporting systems in caucuses and primaries this year. But Nevada, at least, has abandoned a system similar to the one that crashed in Iowa.

“Nevada Dems can confidently say that what happened in the Iowa caucus last night will not happen in Nevada on February 22nd,” said Nevada Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II on Tuesday. “We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus. We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

Political Cultures Of Biden And Sanders Clashed In Iowa

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Iowa voters will be the first, but not the last, to choose between Democratic candidates with very different movements that all proclaim that they will defeat President Trump, unite the party, heal the country and address real crises.

But if the closing candidate rallies and events in Iowa have revealed anything, it is that the differences between the top-tier Democrats are much deeper now than they were in 2016. Nowhere is this contrast clearer than at events for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, where their faithful see each man as a sage on a sacred mission, while the other leads a doomed wing of the Democratic Party.

The 3,000 attendees at a Sanders rally and concert in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night didn’t just hear Sanders recite why Trump must be defeated, what American wounds must be healed and how a popular uprising will succeed. They first heard leading progressives deliver secular sermons casting Sanders as a prophetic figure who would finish the economic reforms begun under FDR’s New Deal and revive Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of real justice and social transformation.

“It isn’t just about the numbers, is it?” said filmmaker Michael Moore, citing Sanders’ lead in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and California. “It is about the heart and soul of the things that we believe in. The America that we still believe in; the America—I say this all the time—I believe in the America we have yet to have. That’s the America I believe in. I believe we can still make the promise real.”

“We will send a message to the nation and the world [that] it is a new day in America,” said cultural critic Cornel West. “The spiritual catastrophe, ecological catastrophe, economic catastrophe, political catastrophe will be attended to with deep love. When you love, you hate injustice. That’s what we’re here for. And we will win!”

But Sanders isn’t the only 2020 Democrat seeing their campaign as a deeply moral mission, if not a secular crusade, to save America. A day later, on Sunday in Des Moines, former Vice President Joe Biden held a “community meeting” in a high school gym. Speaker after speaker—Democrats centrists elected to government posts at every level, including Obama’s Cabinet—said that only Biden, a deeply empathetic man, could return America and the world to saner times.

“Folks, empathy is an incredibly important consideration for a president,” said Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “And no one has a deeper empathy [with], has a deeper connection to, those who are in need of someone to reach out to provide hope that there is a better day than Joe Biden.”

“So remember this,” he continued, offering talking points for caucus-goers. “He gets things done. He can fix our place in the world as a global leader once again… [Biden] is the person with the greatest empathy and connection with all of those Americans who are suffering; [the] understanding of what this country needs most of all. Why? Because when we are united, when we are healed, when we are no longer divided, there is absolutely nothing this country can’t do and everything we can do.”

At Sanders’ rally a day before, thousands of people—mostly under age 30—heard passionate testimonials about the need for deep fundamental change. At the Biden “community meeting” where hundreds of people, including many former government officials and party leaders, there were quieter but very serious arguments about the need to fundamentally rescue the government from Trump and his GOP accomplices.

This amounts to a clash of the party’s fundamentals and fundamentalists. Indeed, some of the hecklers at Biden’s rally—yelling questions about climate change or oil and gas industry donations, who were quickly drowned out by chants of, “We want Joe! We want Joe!” and elicited no response from Biden—were doubtless inspired by the seminar-sermons that have been fixtures of Sanders’ events.

Democrats are really in a bind. Reached by phone while driving between Iowa events, Debra Kozikowski, vice-chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, a longtime grassroots organizer and founder of the Left of Center PAC, raised the latest lament: Democrats can’t win with, or can’t win without, Sanders in 2020. And back in the Des Moines gym, one of the few Iowans watching Biden from near the podium, Wallace Bubar, 46, a Presbyterian pastor, came to almost the same conclusion about Biden.

“I know plenty of people who are moderate Democrats, or in the past might have been Republicans, who are not fans of Trump,” he said, before Biden spoke. “They are not going to vote for Bernie Sanders. His message is too progressive for lots of centrists.” When pressed why, Bubar said that raising the taxes needed to pay for reforms, “more than anything else,” was off-putting to these moderates.

But after hearing Biden, who spoke without a script and rambled, often in muffled and truncated phrases, Bubar raised the inescapable question: Was Biden past his prime? Before leaving, he brought up Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor and media mogul who is also reaching for the political center.

Iowans and the states whose primaries and caucuses follow don’t have an easy choice. Biden and Sanders have spent their lives seeking to stand up deeply opposing political systems and cultures, even as they both say that they want to uplift the working and middle classes. Sanders has put that goal front and center in his speeches, while Biden cites it after restoring American democracy and global leadership.

Sanders believes the spark to ignite his revolution to transform America has finally arrived. Biden believes he and other civil servants must serve again to preserve the governmental system that they have dedicated their careers to. Yet that is the very system that Sanders has sought to transform for decades. Both camps know this, despite candidate pronouncements of beating Trump and uniting the party.

“It just stuns me the things he says every day,” Biden told the Des Moines gym. “We need a president that brings us together, and unite our party when this nomination is all over, and unite the country. We’re a democracy. I’ve been criticized for saying we’ll unite the country. Well, we’re a democracy. Democracies depend on consensus. And there’s no way to govern, to progress, if we can’t reach consensus in America. We have to be able to pull Democrats, Independents and Republicans together. We have to be able to do that.”

“The whole world is looking at Iowa,” Sanders told the Cedar Rapids arena. “The whole world is asking whether or not the people in Iowa are prepared to stand up and fight for justice… All over the world, people are watching to see if people in Iowa are prepared to help create a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent… And it all begins in Iowa.”

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore