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RNC uses data, volunteers for mid-term election

ELKO – Republicans are preparing for this year’s mid-term election season using an advanced data system to track and analyze voters in Nevada.

The Republican National Committee is touring the state to explain the data targeting program, which culminates in a data summit Jan. 20 in Las Vegas, coordinated with a live training session for Republican volunteers in Carson City and Las Vegas.

“The data summit should be a very good event for us,” said Nevada RNC State Director Dan Coats. “The idea is to get Republican political decision makers all in one room to discuss RNC data, the field program and party unity.”

The summit will include Republican incumbents from both chambers of the state Legislature, all statewide campaign candidates and southern Nevada congressional candidates.

The highlight of the summit is the data targeting which will be used mainly for the general election.

“The message there is [that] we have the tools and resources for whoever comes out of these primaries to be successful. We are building the infrastructure to be successful,” said Coats.

Coats explained that the party is intensifying its efforts for voter registration in the mid-term elections.

“We’ve been registering voters since June 1, and we’re not going to stop until the deadline in October,” Coats said.

National Day of Training date is another push by the RNC to recruit and train volunteers, Coats said. “Our entire existence is to build a volunteer infrastructure that allows us to succeed.”

It will include Nevada Leadership Initiative Training that works with volunteers, or fellows, to instruct them in “political organizing 101,” Coats said, which includes learning how to have one-on-one recruitment meetings, organize house meetings, and how to register voters.

Once the neighborhood teams are organized, they will go into the community to work on voter registration, voter identification and persuasion and voter turnout, Coats said.

“The neighborhood team model is the key component of it all because Chairman Reince Priebus in 2012 completely revamped the field program,” Coats said. Now, it will “empower volunteers, create a clear chain of command and team vibe within this neighborhood team model.”

“We’ve made significant progress in Nevada” for Republican voter registration, Coats said. “I believe the last report was around 76,000, is the Democratic advantage over the Republicans, but that is significantly smaller than what it was going into the 2016 election and previous election cycles as well.”

So how is data transforming the way elections are predicted and won? The RNC uses voter scores program, born out of the 2012 presidential election that saw Barack Obama elected President.

“They built an incredible operation, both in the field … and from a data perspective,” said Brian Parnitzke, RNC Director of Turnout and Targeting. “They did an incredible job and we got beat.”

The RNC program replaced microtargeting, a method that was first used in 2004 to sort voters into their demographics.

“Essentially, they are a unique way for us to look at every single registered voter in the country and go about models on how likely they are to hold different sentiments and what not,” Parnitzke said. “It’s your typical big data thing.”

The voter score program was built from surveys taken in each state, from which models are created that ask how likely they are to vote in the presidential election and narrow down their opinions about issues such as President Donald Trump’s tax bill and his current agenda, said Kristian Hemphill, RNC Regional Data Director.

“We have up to 4,000 given points of consumer data on any given voter in Nevada to create an individual score of each voter,” Hemphill said.

“We’re able to track key events that take place and notice when different shifts in the electorate are happening. If some new bill is introduced or if a major event takes place, we are able to tie that event to those voters who have moved and know this is likely something that causes that shift,” Parntizke said.

“It’s invaluable information we can turn over to anyone with an ‘R’ next to their name.”

The program also detects shifts in voter habits, comparing how someone votes in each election, starting in 2014.

Parnitzke said the voter scores give a view into a “longitudinal study of the electorate, which is invaluable,” allowing the data team to see which voters are shifting up or down from their party affiliations and go after them.

“The party looks very different in 2018 than it did in 2014 when we began this program,” Parnitzke said.

Using the individual scores for each voter over microtargeting “allows us to force rank all the voters if we had to, if someone asked for 30,000 best voters,” Hemphill said.

The scores are refreshed monthly in target states, show what is trending among the electorate, and turned over to the field teams and all of the campaigns.

Parnitzke pointed to Senate races in Colorado and North Carolina both won by Republican candidates in 2014 as a successful use of voter scores, which countered the polls predicting a loss.

Because of those successes, the RNC invested $200 million in 2016 in the voter score program that was “not just predictive, but prescriptive,” Parnitzke said.

“The voter scores can tell you what we think the outcome will be, but the more important portion is really their prescriptive nature. They can tell you who to target and who go after … how to prescribe … to get 51 percent for anyone with an ‘R’ next to their name.”

In 2016, the RNC predicted national turnout to 1 percent and voter turnout in Michigan 0.2 percent, Parnitzke said.

Parnitzke cautioned that the voter scores were “not 100 percent accurate” and not used for predicting the future.

Voter scores were also used in Florida, Parnitzke explained, when the data was used to reach 699,000 voters who had not made up their minds three days before the presidential election in 2016.

“The field team made the difference in that race,” Parnitzke said.

However, the voter scores program isn’t used for the primary elections and caucuses, just specific candidates in the general election, Parnitzke said.

“We’re sort of agnostic to who the candidate is. We had 17 candidates for president last cycle. The RNC and Chris Carr, political director at the time, said, ‘We need to build a good organization and turnkey operation that as soon as we get a nominee, we can hand over the reins … we’ve spent months, years investing in the program. It’s yours.’”

The program is “peerless,” Parnitzke said, explaining that because of the investment of money and time, the Democrats “will be playing catch up with us for a long time to try and build.”

“Even if they do start making those investments, and even if somehow they were able to work out the kinks in their system and match what we have in terms of current projections going forward, they still can’t match what we have in terms of the history of the program.”

But does the system rely upon computer algorithms to generate a list of voters to target in an election? According to Parnitzke, “It is very human.”

“There’s a lot of humanity that goes into it, and again I think that’s one of the differences between us and the Democrats. The Clinton campaign spent a lot of money and understood the need to have a strong data program…they think of data as a strategy and we think of data as a tool.”

“We’re able to track key events that take place and notice when different shifts in the electorate are happening.” — Brian Parnitzke, RNC Turnout and Targeting

The Republican National Committee provided the correct figures for the number of voters the data program reached in Florida.

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Elko under winter weather advisory

ELKO — Northeastern Nevada is under a winter weather advisory through 4 a.m. Saturday.

The National Weather Service lists a 70 to 90 percent chance of snow Friday and a 40 percent chance Friday night.

From 1-4 inches of snow could fall in the valleys and 3-8 inches on summits.

"Plan on slippery road conditions," cautioned the weather service. For current road reports call 511 or visit

Skies will be partly cloudy Saturday and Sunday with highs in the mid-30s.

A chance of snow will return Sunday night and continue into next week.

The Ruby Mountains are under a winter storm warning, along with White Pine and southern Eureka and Lander counties.

JEFFRY MULLINS, Elko Daily Free Press 

Nevada Highway Patrol investigates a collision on Lamoille Highway at Martin Avenue at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday as heavy fog blanketed Spring Creek.

Correctional officer overtime is busting state budget; 'It would be naive to think the system is not being gamed'

An exasperated Gov. Brian Sandoval declared Nevada had a “fiscal emergency” on its hands after hearing that the Nevada Department of Corrections is $15 million over budget this year because of soaring correctional officer overtime costs.

Sandoval said the audit discussed Tuesday at the Executive Branch Audit Committee, which includes all other Nevada constitutional officers, was the worst he’d seen in his seven years as governor. Concerned that the agency would “survive” the criticism at the meeting but return to the status quo, he asked whether it was possible for an auditor to embed in the prisons agency and ensure fixes come to pass.

“This is the zero moment when the ship sinks or stays up,” Sandoval said, pointing out that the spiraling costs could wipe out a reserve fund, depriving other agencies of emergency funds or forcing him to call a special session to fix a budget hole. “Thinking, looking, reviewing — we’re beyond that. … We need action right away.”

In each of the past three years, overtime costs for the prisons department have grown 30 percent, auditors said. The prison population itself has grown by an average of just 2 percent in that time period.

Some of that can be explained by the need for supervision while an increasing number of inmates receive medical care outside the prison — hospital supervision drove 18 percent of overtime expenses last year.

But auditors pointed out some egregious cases, such as an officer at Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs who made $97,000 in overtime in fiscal year 2017, far more than the average at the facility of $7,000. Are officers calling in sick so their colleagues can pick up their shift on overtime pay, and is the friend returning the favor?

“It would be naive to think the system is not being gamed. I am positive that there is collusion going on in order to generate schedules that would result in ‘feathering one’s nest,’ as you say,” said John Borrowman, NDOC’s deputy director of support services. “But at what point in time do we implement a policy that is harmful to the collective in order to address those who are gaming the system? How do you isolate those? How do you identify those?”

Nevada prisons, which house some 14,000 inmates, constitute one of the state general fund’s biggest expenses. Of an $8 billion, two-year general fund budget, about $685 million is dedicated to the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers are not strangers to fielding overtime funding requests from the agency, which has struggled with a chronically high vacancy rate and has warned of escalating prison medical costs. As a way to improve recruitment and retention, Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed — and lawmakers approved — a 5 percent pay raise for correctional officers.

Vacancy rates have stabilized — four of the seven major facilities have rates of 4 percent or less, which is considered healthy and normal, although Ely, Lovelock and Northern Nevada Correctional Center have rates ranging from 9 percent to 14 percent.

But the agency said the Legislature declined to approve additional medical transport positions to take inmates to doctor’s appointments and supervise them during hospital stays. Asked why, Borrowman told Sandoval that lawmakers said they didn’t want to create positions that would remain vacant. State lawmakers cut about $5.8 million out of the originally proposed budget during the 2017 legislative session.

Prison officials blame that lack of dedicated medical transport officers for forcing officers to leave their regular duties and then inducing overtime.

In one case, they said 12 women housed at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center were in the hospital at once to give birth. While the prison had budgeted for four officers to supervise inmates receiving medical care, they needed 72 officers a day in that case — two per inmate, and three shifts per day.

Asked about the two-person policy, Borrowman said the department is considering whether it can monitor hospitalized inmates with just one officer.

Sandoval was critical of agency officials who offered explanations for their current policy of allowing overtime and leave time in close proximity. The policy was nice, but “we’re not an ATM,” the governor said.

“The response I hear now is that we want a blank check. We don’t have a blank check,” he said.

Borrowman countered that he was intent on fixing the problem.

“I’m sorry if I haven’t expressed the urgency the department is taking as we do this review,” he said. “We do understand that it is our responsibility to live within our means, and we are making every effort to do so.”

Auditors offered four recommendations:

— Allow overtime based on time worked, not time paid: Auditors said in about 20 percent of the time sheets they examined, officers were taking overtime and leave in the same week. For example, they took Monday off but worked Tuesday through Friday, thus collecting pay for 40 hours. When they worked Saturday that week, overtime kicked in. Auditors recommend that overtime kick in only after 40 hours of bona fide work in a week — a change they say could save the state $1.4 million.

— Analyze the work climate and encourage more overtime volunteers: Only 7 percent of correctional officers are volunteering for overtime hours, according to the report. The rest work overtime when they’re forced to. Auditors recommended finding a strategy to broaden the base of volunteers, and suggested the current setup — in which more senior staff get desirable shifts while junior workers get worse schedules — is creating the low volunteer rate. They called for surveying the work climate to find the source of the problem.

— Determine staffing needs at each facility: Generally, the level of vacancies should determine how much overtime the remaining staff has to put in. But auditors found the proportion was out of whack. In the worst case, at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Facility, the vacancy rate is 2 percent but the amount of overtime logged is 610 percent of the number of “vacant hours” the prison has. On the other end of the spectrum, Lovelock Correctional Center only pays overtime for about 57 percent of the vacant hours it has. Auditors said that might be the case because Lovelock has more positions on paper than it actually needs, and those positions could be transferred to other areas of need within the department.

— Implement part-time or critical need officers for hospital coverage: Auditors recommended using part-time workers — such as retired peace officers — to help augment staffing without overtime or the additional costs of a full-time employee. This strategy helped Nevada’s Capitol Police force lower its overtime costs by 20 percent, and auditors estimate it could help Nevada prisons save $500,000.