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DNC chairman effectively kills plans for virtual caucuses

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Posted at 2:24 PM, Aug 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-31 15:24:25-04

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.

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.

The powerful rules 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 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 traditional form.

The decision leaves the Iowa and Nevada state parties in limbo, without clarity on how they’ll meet the national party’s requirements to expand access to the caucuses. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said he would comply with the DNC’s decision, but that he wouldn’t speculate on any potential alternatives to the plan the party had originally put in place.

“We’re going to take the time we need to explore the options available to us, recognizing we still have five months till the caucuses,” he said.

Price also expressed confidence that Iowa would not have to scrap the caucuses overall, or lose its status as the first state in the nation to express a presidential preference.

It’s unclear how exactly the elimination of the tele-caucus option will affect candidate strategy. Conversations with campaign aides in Iowa and Nevada suggested most campaigns hadn’t done much planning around the virtual caucus yet because the exact processes hadn’t yet been approved by the DNC. But at least one candidate, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, called the DNC’s decision to scrap the virtual caucus an “affront to the principles of our democracy.”

William McCurdy II, the Nevada Democratic Party chairman, 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.”

Nevada’s plan to offer early, in-person caucusing is expected to meet the DNC’s requirement that states offer some alternate means of participating in traditional neighborhood meetings.

The party has planned to offer four early nights where voters may show up at a location and fill out forms listing their preferred candidate and at least one alternate. The DNC has not given final approval to that plan, but Artie Blanco, a DNC rules and bylaws committee member from Nevada, said Friday that she had not heard any security concerns about the early caucusing plan.

Blanco said plans for the tele-caucus involved creating new technology that doesn’t yet exist. The states had hoped to work with the DNC to develop the telephone-based voting system but questions about how secure the system could be were raised back in a June DNC meeting. She said she’s hopeful that Democrats will work to create it by 2024.

“I’m disappointed that we’re not going to try to build this system this year. The unfortunate thing is we’re less than six months out,” Blanco said. “We attempted to do this process to allow for others to participate and I’m hopeful that the DNC will work with the states to develop the technology.”

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 for events that require in-person voting at local meetings around the state.

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