KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
All right. Now to Iowa, where the caucuses will be held on February 1. Here's how it works. It's a pretty low-tech situation. Republicans often cast their ballots on slips of paper. Democrats count their support for candidates by grouping together in corners. That approach has led to some problems, most notably in 2012. So now, as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, the caucuses are finally getting a tech upgrade.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Four years ago, it took about three weeks to figure out who won Iowa's Republican caucuses. There were a lot of reasons for the mix-up - close race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, but especially major problems counting precinct-level results. So this time around, both the Republicans and Democrats in Iowa have turned to a solution that many of us use to get better organized, a smartphone app. The specially-developed program will keep track of each precinct's tally and send the results to party headquarters in Des Moines.
ALEX LATCHAM: This is the biggest change this year from in years past, OK?
DETROW: It's a chilly December night in the Greenville, Iowa, and Adair County's precinct volunteers are sitting around a tiny insurance office preparing for February 1. Aside from the app, most of this is old hat for the dozen or so people that the Iowa GOP's Alex Latcham is talking to.
LATCHAM: A couple of you now have been caucusing longer than I've been alive.
DETROW: Latcham has held this meeting hundreds of times already. It's his job to go over all the details - how to register new voters, when to pass out ballots, even details like when to ask for party donations.
LATCHAM: It's very important that you do this before the presidential vote has been taken, OK? First of all, you'll have people leave after the vote. Second of all, people will be less inclined to give if their guy has just lost.
DETROW: The app itself is pretty straightforward and stripped-down. It kind of looks like a big calculator. Once a precinct has its results tallied, someone will open up the app to type in results.
LATCHAM: At this point, this is where the security step comes into play. This is called two-stage authentication. Basically, Ryan will then receive a text message on his telephone, OK, and that text message is good for 15 minutes.
DETROW: The volunteer - in this case, County Chair Ryan Frederick - then simply types in the total number of caucusers and each candidate's total. When party officials review results, the software will flag precincts where the results look funny - far too many or too few people showing up, for example.
RYAN FREDERICK: For those of you who remember the good old days, this is so much better. (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, it sounds like it.
DETROW: That's Frederick, who's sitting across the conference table from Latcham. Frederick says it was easy to make mistakes with the old system where volunteers punched results into an automated hotline. The caucus app makes complete sense to Frederick, who's in his 30s and uses his Android phone for just about everything.
FREDERICK: If it isn't in this phone, it doesn't exist. So (laughter)...
DETROW: But not everyone feels that way. Many caucus-goers are older, and Latcham says he's spent a lot of training time just showing people how to download and install apps on their phones. That's a main reason why Microsoft and both parties are doing so many test runs before February 1. As Frederick puts it as the training session wraps up...
FREDERICK: With something like, you know, the future of the free world, you want to be sure you got it right.
DETROW: And that prospective leader of the free world will probably want to know that night whether or not he or she won the caucus. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.
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