Future Tense

Nevada Is Trying to Avoid Pulling an Iowa by Using … Google Forms

It just might work?

A sign reading "Vote Here" and "Vote Aquí" sits in front of a voting line.
People wait in line to vote on the final day of early voting for the upcoming Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Nevada’s Democratic Party is about to show us if it can pull off what Iowa’s couldn’t. After numerous mishaps with a hastily constructed vote-tabulation app developed by a little-known firm called Shadow contributed to problems with the first-in-the-nation caucuses—including reporting delays, clogged hotlines, and tallying errors—party officials in Nevada quickly changed course for their own caucuses. They had originally been planning to use a platform developed by the same firm, but quickly sought to distance themselves from the debacle and decided to switch over to using a Google Forms tool downloaded onto iPads instead.

While Google Forms, the survey generator that people use for birthday RSVPs and potluck planning, might seem like an odd choice for facilitating a consequential election, it should work well enough to get the job done. The idea is to use the form as a calculator that will help precinct workers combine early voting tallies with results that come in on the day of the caucuses. Given the stigma that the term “app” now has in elections, the Nevada Democratic Party has been adamant in calling this calculator a “tool.” There’s good reason, though, to have more confidence in the Google Form than Shadow’s app, which malfunctioned because of a coding error but also had glaring security flaws.

“It’s certainly not evil,” said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor who used to run caucuses, of using a Google Form in Nevada. “Google as a corporation has resources comparable to a nation-state actor.” The company’s security systems and software products have billions of dollars behind them, and Google is even sending personnel down to Las Vegas in order to assist if there are any problems. Microsoft was able to provide similar services to the Iowa caucuses in 2016 without a hitch. Shadow, on the other hand, is a small startup, launched in early 2019, that received just $60,000 from the Iowa Democratic Party to build the app.

From a security perspective, there’s also a lower risk of tampering with the results because the iPads will be disconnected from the internet, and because caucuses involve people physically moving around to indicate their support rather than submitting a secret ballot. Fairness and efficiency problems with the caucus system notwithstanding, it is difficult to try to change the results of a process that dozens of people saw happen out in the open in the same room.

Though the technology might be sound, user error is always a wild card. “The problem in Iowa was just as much about human beings and training as it was about the app,” said David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. Indeed, there were reports coming out of the state at the time that some poll workers had trouble logging into the app, while others hadn’t even downloaded it until the night of the caucus. “If [the workers] have been well trained, if there’s good oversight, and if there’s some redundancies built in, then we could be OK. Otherwise we could have some real challenges.” There currently appear to be eight “Caucus Calculator Office Hours” to get “hands-on experience” with the tool between now and Saturday in Reno and Las Vegas, according to the Nevada Democratic Party website.

Senior Democratic National Committee leaders are outwardly confident that Nevada has developed a better election infrastructure than Iowa, but the last-minute technology switch-up may heighten the risk of human error—in-person trainings for the calculator just began on Tuesday. Protocol reported that over the past week, Democrats have launched a last-minute push to get volunteers with basic technology skills to travel to Nevada and troubleshoot at precincts in case any iPads or Google Forms go kaput. As the sign-up sheet reads, “This is IRL not a virtual volunteer ask. You have to travel to Nevada for this.” A source told the outlet that only 50 technicians had signed up as of Wednesday, a discouraging number given that the state has about 2,000 precincts. (The Nevada Democratic Party did not respond to Slate’s inquiry.)

Nevertheless, Jones says that what he’s seen from the Nevada preparations so far look promising, particularly because there seem to be clearer instructions for poll workers who want to do the math themselves in order to double-check the Google calculator than there were in Iowa. “Any participant in the caucus who cares to check on what the Google Form is doing can do it. All it takes is a calculator or pencil and paper.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.