DNC chairman effectively kills plans for virtual Iowa caucuses

FILE - In this March 8, 2019 file photo, an audience member arrives at a rally for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. AP photo

Democrats' plans for virtual presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada are effectively dead as the national party chairman said Friday the results would be vulnerable to hacking and abuse.

Posted: Aug 30, 2019 5:38 AM
Updated: Aug 30, 2019 2:45 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrats' plans for virtual presidential caucuses in Iowa and Nevada are effectively dead as the national party chairman said Friday the results would be vulnerable to hacking and abuse.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared his opposition to plans for telephone voting submitted by the key early voting states of Iowa and Nevada, envisioned as part of the national party's efforts to increase participation in the 2020 nominating fight.

"We concur with the advice of the DNC's security experts that there is no tele-caucus system available that meets our standard of security and liability," Perez said in a statement joined by the co-chairs of the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

That powerful committee, which must approve all states' primary and caucus plans, still must meet in the coming weeks to make the final decision, but Friday's statement makes clear that meeting will be a formality. The decision removes a potential cause of a flawed count on caucus night that could undermine the integrity of a process that has been criticized even in its conventional form.

Tony Price, Iowa Democratic Party chair, said in a statement that while the state party has confidence in its process, it would accept the DNC's decision to scrap the virtual caucus plans. He suggested, though, that the party would try to find an alternative in the short time remaining before the caucuses.

"While only five months remain before the caucuses, we will explore what alternatives may exist to securely increase accessibility from previous years given the time allowed. We're dedicated to expanding accessibility throughout the process so that no Iowan faces a barrier at their caucus. We are confident that this will be resolved in the coming weeks," he said.

William McCurdy II, Price's Nevada counterpart, expressed disappointment in the outcome but noted that his state still will have early caucus voting "to provide Nevada Democrats additional opportunities to participate in an important process that will have lasting effects on our country."

The dynamics highlight competing priorities for Democrats. A high-profile party commission formed after the bitter primary fight in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders recommended that the party find ways to increase voter participation in the nominating process. Caucus states historically have very low turnout.

But Perez also has made it clear that Democrats must have a nominating process that doesn't leave the eventual nominee saddled with questions of legitimacy, as Clinton faced in 2016 from Sanders supporters convinced that the national party had weighted the process in her favor.

Democrats with knowledge of the deliberations said DNC's findings on the virtual caucuses came after a test of the planned systems revealed vulnerability to hacking. The party already is sensitive to hacking after Russian operatives infiltrated DNC servers during the 2016 election campaign, and Democrats say they could not abide having the Iowa and Nevada results delegitimized after the fact.

"The fact is that (Republican Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell isn't doing his job dealing with the Russian threats that our intelligence community knows are out there," said Barry Goodman, a member of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee. "So the Democratic Party is left to try to deal with these issues on our own, and there are lots of concerns."

In Washington, the Democratic-controlled House has passed election security measures, but McConnell has not taken them up in the Senate or advanced GOP alternatives.

The Iowa and Nevada parties had planned to allow some voters to cast caucus votes over the telephone in February 2020 instead of showing up at traditional caucus meetings.

National party leaders, including Perez, have praised state parties for their efforts to expand participation, especially among those who work evenings or have disabilities. But rolling out a new voting system ran the risk of causing confusion and technical troubles. The state parties have said they still wanted to work with DNC security experts to develop and test their tele-caucus systems this fall.

Both state parties would have required Democrats to register online in advance of their virtual caucus and verify their identity with "multi-factor authentication." Voters would receive a PIN that they would have to enter when they called in to participate.

Iowans would have had six times to participate by phone, whereas Nevada would have offered two days of telephone-based voting.

The latest turnabout comes months into the DNC's process of considering delegate selection plans from all 50 states and seven territories. The Rules and Bylaws Committee gave conditional approval to the plans in June, but withheld final approval pending security experts' review.

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