But don't blame voters or hand-counted paper ballots...
By Brad Friedman on 2/6/2012, 3:40pm PT  

Iowa's "First-in-the-Nation" Caucuses managed to publicly tally some 122,000 hand-marked paper ballots at 1,774 caucus sites within an hour or two after votes were cast, in such a way that any problems or typos in the state GOP's reporting of the results could be quickly verified by many different sources as inaccurate, thanks to the thousands who were able to oversee the hand-counting on caucus night.

This year Iowa had the tightest results in state history --- just 34 votes were ultimately reported as separating the first and second place candidates --- and yet almost nobody is shouting "fraud" or questioning the results in the Hawkeye State today after what was, in truth, a model of transparent democracy.

Contrast that with the embarrassing and disastrous mess that took place across the state of Nevada on Saturday --- and in the days that followed --- where just 33,000 hand-marked paper ballot votes were cast (down from 44,000 in 2008), but where GOP officials were unable to report even preliminary results to the public until 1am on Monday!

In the bargain, candidates and media and the public are questioning even those late late late results, while nowhere near as many votes were cast, and the results do not appear to be anywhere as close.

So what went wrong in Nevada this year that didn't go wrong in Iowa?...

At this hour, it remains difficult to known for certain, since --- and this appears to be the biggest problem over all --- so much of the tallying was done out of the eyes of the public, by a small handful of party-selected individuals, inside various GOP County headquarters around the state.

I've been on the road for the last day or so, so unable to focus on the matter as closely as usual, and state GOP officials don't seem to be answering their phones today for some reason, so the best I've been able to do is stitch things together from various media reports (always a risky proposition) in an attempt to try and figure out what led to the massive failure.

I'll be happy to update this article with corrections and/or clarifications if/when I hear back from any state GOP officials, or others who are more familiar with the process carried out over the weekend. But based on reading a great deal of coverage over the last 24 hours, some reasonable assessment can be made.

For a start, while Nevada has a similar number of precincts (1,835) compared to Iowa's (1,774), it appears that, unlike Iowa, precincts were combined to hold just 125 caucuses statewide. Thus, there were either too many votes at each caucus to allow them to be counted publicly at each site in a reasonable amount of time, or they didn't bother to do so at all, choosing instead to send all of the ballots cast back to one central location at separate County Headquarters to be tallied.

Once the ballots leave a caucus site (and, therefore, the eye of the public), the trouble begins. Anything can happen at that point. That's why it's so important to count ballots immediately on Election Night in front of the citizenry, just as Iowa did at each of their 1,774 caucus sites on January 3rd. Problems that may discovered later --- such as typos or misreporting of the caucus-based hand-counts by a central authority --- can be easily verified one way or another without having to rely on a single source, since so many witnessed the initial count, and were allowed to photograph results sheets at the caucus sites, etc. That type of process is very difficult to game, even if Election Insiders (the folks who are inclined to defraud the system, as opposed to voters themselves) try to.

For example, after the Iowa GOP had posted their reported caucus night tallies to their website from each and every caucus, citizens who had witnessed the caucus counts could check those results against their own eyeballs, photographs and other contemporaneous records of the initial tallies. That's what happened, for instance, when Ron Paul supporter Edward True discovered that the Iowa GOP had reported 22 votes for Mitt Romney when at his Washington Wells caucus site in Appanoose County, in fact, he had received only 2 votes there. Nobody had to rely on either True or the GOP to determine what had actually taken place, since so many others were able to confirm that, in fact, True had it right, and the GOP didn't.

While it was foolish for Iowa's GOP chairman Matthew Strawn to announce a conclusive "winner" on Caucus Night, as he did, while just 8 votes(!) separated first and second place (as was the case on the night of the Iowa Caucuses) before numbers could be double-checked for typos, etc., and obnoxious for him and other Iowa GOP officials to publicly slam True for darking to speak up about the anomaly (once again, thank you, Edward True!), the process used in Iowa is just about as close as we get in this country to Democracy's Gold Standard when it comes to casting ballots which can be known to reflect voter intent and where the tally is then overseen and verifiable by thousands of independent members of the public.

Strawn and the Iowa GOP have taken unwarranted heat for what happened there, given the overall accuracy of the public count in a race which was so absurdly close. Strawn ended up resigning in the wake of criticism by folks in the media who didn't bother to really understand how the process worked there, after it was ultimately determined that Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney, had actually won the Iowa caucuses by just 34 votes out of some 122,000 cast. (Strawn should have resigned for the treatment he and other GOP officials gave to True after he'd stepped forward, or even for going on record to declare Romney "the winner" on Election Night before double-checking their own reported tally, but not for the fact that it took two weeks to cross all available Ts and dot every I that they could.)

Meanwhile, back in Nevada, ballots were tallied "in the dark" back at the various GOP county headquarters over the last several days, instead of by teams of public counters overseen at the caucus sites. (Some caucuses do appear to have tallied publicly, but not all, particularly at the caucuses where there were too many votes cast to do that.) The results as now finally reported by the state GOP are either accurate or not. Who knows? Nobody can. Now that the secure chain of custody for the ballots cast on Saturday has been broken, no one can known for certain, since it ultimately took days, rather than hours, for the public to learn of even initial results at all. Only party insiders were given access to oversee the tallies as the bulk of them were carried out outside of the public eye.

Yes, there were additional problems across the state --- such as the party moving the date of the caucuses twice before finally settling on 2/4/12; a lack of uniform processes across the entire state, with the GOP committees in each county establishing differing procedures; last minute state redistricting lead to confusion for some voters; one caucus in Clark County was scheduled at night for observant Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists to avoid Saturday afternoon worship, and resulted in officials waiting before releasing results, etc --- but even all of those problems might have been overcome if the party had entrusted the people and a fully public process, observable by everyone, include the media and even those not voting in the caucuses, to oversee the entire process from votes being cast to votes being publicly hand-counted with results reported to all in attendance at each site before ballots were moved anywhere.

The result of the state GOP failure is, aside from voters being potentially disenfranchised entirely, a huge and deserved black eye for the party. Or, since it's Nevada, a couple of snake eyes, if you will, as state Republicans managed to crap out in their ill-considered and pathetically carried out "First-in-the-West" Caucuses over the weekend.

The worst result of all, however, may be that party officials may choose to use the state's 100% unverifiable touch-screen e-voting machines to hold a Primary Election instead, rather than a paper-ballot Caucus system, the next time around. If they do so --- rather than correct the terrible processes they used this year --- there is likely to be little question about the reported results, since the type of voting machines they use across the entire Silver State means that it will be strictly impossible to know if even one vote was accurately recorded as per voter intent.

Thanks for making hand-counted paper ballots appear to be a bad idea, Nevada GOP! But the fact is, neither the voters, nor the fact that they were allowed to vote on hand-marked paper ballots, are to blame. The only thing crystal clear about the Nevada GOP Caucuses is that the extraordinary incompetence of the state Republican party, which, when they had the chance to run their own elections, using any rules and procedures they liked, managed to fail each and every one of their very own voters.

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