North Dakota Democrats promise smooth, low-tech caucus

BISMARCK (AP) — The technical difficulties and reporting delays that plagued Iowa’s closely watched caucuses raised questions about other states that use the caucus system to indicate presidential preference — including North Dakota. But Democrats here say their March 10 caucuses don’t use an app like the one blamed for Iowa’s technical problems. Instead, citizens indicate their preference on old-school paper ballots that get tabulated by a third-party vendor.
Here’s a primer on North Dakota’s so-called “firehouse” caucuses:
A firehouse caucus is a party-run primary so named because it is held in a public place such as a firehouse. The process is new this year for North Dakota Democrats, who have relied on a more traditional caucus where votes were collected by precinct captains and hand counted. This year, the caucuses will be held at 14 locations, where qualified voters may cast a ballot and leave instead of hanging around for multiple rounds of voting, said Alex Rohr, a party spokesman.
“We made the change because we wanted to be as inclusive and accessible as possible,” he said. “We are not using any untested tech.”
For caucusgoers, the process can be as simple as showing up, filling out a form and marking a ballot, in private if they wish. They also must sign a “Pledge of Support” for the Democratic Party.
The caucuses are being held in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, Minot, Williston, Jamestown, Devils Lake, Valley City, Dickinson, Wahpeton, and the Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain, Spirit Lake and Fort Berthold Reservations.
Hotels, community centers, union halls and a casino have been booked as caucus locations — but no firehouses.
Democratic voting locations open at 11 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Central time. Participants are not required to vote at a caucus location of their home district. Someone who lives in Bismarck, for example, may vote at a caucus in Minot, and vice versa.
Also new this year for Democrats is mail-in voting. Voters may request a ballot from the party, fill it out and mail it back. Ballots postmarked by March 5 will be counted.
The paper ballots will be counted by machines run by a third-party vendor in Bismarck and Fargo. Rohr said the vendor, New York-based Global Election Services, “has in place multiple safety protocols, including encryption software, to protect the safety and integrity of the election.” Each scanned ballot will have a paper trail, he said.
Being a state with a small population, North Dakota is worth just 18 delegates, making any outcome largely symbolic. The strongly conservative state has no Democratic statewide office holders and hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee in 1964. Delegates in 2016 overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. President Donald Trump got more than 60% of the vote in North Dakota in 2016 and remains popular.
Presidential caucuses in North Dakota started in 2000, after an early presidential primary in 1996 attracted turnout of less than 15% of voters.
Former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, the state GOP chairman, said there will be 20 to 30 caucus locations statewide. President Trump is the only candidate on the ballot at present but there could be more by the time the caucuses are held, Berg said. The GOP always has been low-tech when in comes to counting ballots at its caucuses, and will remain that way in the near future, he said.
“We may explore something different four years from now, but right now we’ll stick to the old fashion way of paper and hand counting,” Berg said.