'Taking no chances': Nevada Dems hire massive call center to avoid caucus meltdown

The state party, and the DNC, are taking steps to avoid an Iowa-style voting fiasco on Saturday.
Image: Caucus Volunteers Receive Training Before Nevada Votes In Presidential Primary
Nevada caucus volunteers receive training for recording results in Las Vegas on Thursday. Win McNamee / Getty Images

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By Alex Seitz-Wald and Garrett Haake

LAS VEGAS — Nervous about another fiasco like Iowa's, Democrats here and nationally are going to extra lengths to try to avoid a breakdown in the caucus process that could delay results on Saturday.

Nevada Democrats have hired a professional call center with 200 paid operators and dedicated reporting lines to help take in results from caucus sites around the state, diverging from Iowa where lightly trained volunteers manned the phones and reported chaos and jammed phoned lines after an app that was supposed to process most of the results malfunctioned.

"We have been working around the clock to ensure that what happened in Iowa will not happen here, which is why we're taking no chances when it comes to reporting," Molly Forgey, spokesperson for the Nevada Democratic Party, told NBC News. She added that the steps taken should "ensure that our precinct chairs and site leads will be able to successfully report results on caucus day."

The Democratic National Committee, which faced blowback from the Iowa mess, has gotten far more involved in Nevada, dispatching some three dozen staffers to the state to help with everything from volunteer recruitment to technical assistance, while another team in Washington will assist with data processing.

And DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who stayed away from Iowa on caucus day, will be on the ground here Saturday.

Plans to use a similar app as the one used in Iowa were scrapped after the fiasco. Instead, officials distributed iPads loaded with off-the-shelf tools to help calculate results.

There are only 252 caucus sites, which will make it possible for officials to dispatch tech-savvy volunteers to most of them. (There are 2,099 precincts statewide, but many of them are sharing space, with some sites hosting as many two dozen precincts.)

Caucuses are complicated and messy processes that pose unique challenges. And unlike primaries, which are typically run by selection professionals from the state government, caucuses are administered by the political parties, whose core competency is winning elections, not running them.

Nevada caucuses feature a new challenge because the party, for the first time, is attempting to integrate early voting with caucus day results on Saturday. Outside experts have warned that delayed results or unforeseen complications are possible — or even likely.

Already, the party has had to invalidate a little more than 1,000 ballots from the first three days of early voting out of four days total. Most were voided because they lacked signatures, a Nevada Democratic Party official told NBC News.

The officials said the party is "actively chasing" people whose ballots were invalidated to urge them to come caucus on Saturday, and said they've given those voters' names to the campaigns to do the same.

But some campaigns have been quietly raising concerns about the invalidated ballots, and those cries could grow louder if campaigns feel the process isn't working.

This is the first time Nevada has offered early voting in its caucuses and turnout was high, with some 77,000 Democrats participating — nearly as many as the 84,000 that participated in the entire process in 2016. But it's unclear if that means turnout will be high again on Saturday, or if people just shifted when they vote.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who remains the most powerful Democrat in Nevada, has also been involved in trying to make the caucuses function as well as possible. He helped secure the state's place as the third contest in the presidential primary, a legacy issue for the ailing power broker.

After Iowa, Reid and other Nevada Democrats see a chance to potentially leapfrog up in the voting calendar - but only if things don’t melt down here as well.

"I think Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first to vote, but they damn sure shouldn't be. They have done so much damage," Reid told NBC News. "There's no diversity. It's not right that 48 states should have to follow those two states, which are not representative of the country."