DNC rejects plans by Iowa and Nevada to hold 'virtual' caucuses

Iowa's caucus is scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020.

August 30, 2019, 4:18 PM

Just five months before the first party contest of the 2020 elections, the Democratic Party is scrambling to set the logistics of its early caucuses.

The Democratic National Committee has recommended that Iowa and Nevada abandon plans for a "virtual" caucus system in 2020, over concerns about the security and integrity of the new systems.

The announcement represents a setback for Democrats who had hoped to expand access to the early-state primaries in 2020. Several states, at the party’s urging, have adopted the primary system in place of caucuses to encourage greater participation.

DNC officials expressed concerns about the security of virtual caucusing by phone at the party’s summer meeting last week in San Francisco, and warned that the proposed system could be compromised by hackers.

“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 reliability given the scale needed for the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the current cyber-security climate,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez and By-laws Committee chairs Lorraine Miller and Jim Roosevelt said in a statement.

Similar concerns about virtual caucuses were floated multiple times earlier this year. During a review of Iowa's delegate selection plan in June, many members of the DNC rules committee had outstanding questions about the security and integrity of the virtual caucuses and approved the state’s plan only under conditional compliance.

Similarly, when the Nevada Democratic Party announced its plan to host virtual phone-in caucuses last month, state party officials said the party was working closely with security experts at the DNC to ensure voter security but did not have answers to some of the more specific, potential scenarios when pressed by reporters, including how the party will handle incoming, conflicting votes from voters with the same name.

The DNC had previously mandated a form of absentee ballots as part of efforts to increase participation in caucus states. But if the states can’t come up with another way to address this requirement, the DNC’s Rules and By-laws Committee will consider granting waivers to both states, which will not have to move the dates of their caucuses from Feb. 3 and Feb. 22, respectively – leaving Iowa with its coveted first-in-the-nation status.

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price speaks during an interview on January 31, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

“I am confident these caucuses will be the most successful ever,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said at a news conference. “Just know this, on Feb. 3 of 2020, caucuses will take place in this state. We will be first.”

Price added that the state party will continue conversations with the national party and the campaigns to make sure the Iowa Caucuses are successful, saying he’s “confident that (they’ll) find something that expands accessibility.”

The New Hampshire Democratic Party, which is scheduled to hold its primary about a week after the Iowa caucus, said it’s confident Iowa and the DNC “will work this out in a manner that is not disruptive of the calendar.”

“The four early states work closely together, and we stand united in support of each other,” party Chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement. “We are resolute in protecting New Hampshire's First in the Nation Primary status.”

“This was a good-faith effort all around,” Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist and Rules and By-laws committee member, told ABC News. “We’re not going to put in place a system that is vulnerable to Vladimir Putin’s attacks, or anyone else’s attacks.”

Democratic presidential candidate and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro criticized the DNC’s decision to scrap the two states’ virtual caucuses, urging the national party committee to find a solution to Iowa’s lack of system that allows absentee voting.

Castro said he believes “the DNC needs to get its act together so that it doesn’t disenfranchise tens of thousands of Iowans who would participate in the caucuses.”

“I want to urge the DNC to do the right thing and make sure that more people can vote and participate instead of less. That’s what we’ve been about as Democrats,” he said, and called on other Democratic presidential candidates to follow his lead and push the DNC the come up with a plan.

US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 11, 2019.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told ABC News that some campaigns will have to change their campaigning strategy in Iowa.

“If your campaign was relying on young people, you’re going to have a problem,” he said, citing Mayor Pete Buttigieg and even more so Sen. Bernie Sanders as two candidates who appeal to young voters.

Both state parties plan to work with the DNC on other alternatives to virtual caucusing to increase access and turnout.

“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,” Price said in a statement. “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,”

"The Nevada Democratic Party has long been committed to expanding access to the caucus process—including pioneering workplace caucus sites,” Nevada Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy said in a statement. “This cycle, we engaged even further by introducing early caucus voting. NV Dems will still host four days of in-person early voting and caucus sites on the Las Vegas Strip to provide Nevada Democrats additional opportunities to participate in an important process that will have lasting effects on our country."

“It’s disappointing from a disabled individual’s perspective," Tucker Cassidy, a quadriplegic activist and member of the Iowa Democratic Party's Disability Caucus, told ABC News.

“We are really on the cusp on something that I believe will be done in the future, and I wanted Iowa to be in driver’s seat.” Going forward, Cassidy said, the party should consult disabled voters on potential changes "to see what works for them."

"Iowa’s Virtual Caucuses are an important and innovative step to increase voter participation in Iowa. Accessibility to the polls or caucuses are paramount to a free and fair elections. We need to assure its a safe and secure process where every vote counts, candidate Marianne Williamson said in a statement.

"We also trust Iowa’s Democratic Party, along with the DNC to do just that to make the Virtual Caucuses meet the high standards of a regular caucus,” she said.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, also expressed disappointment, calling for the DNC to reconsider its decision to shut out virtual caucuses.

“I am extremely disappointed in the DNC’s decision to reject plans to hold virtual caucuses, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with Iowans and Nevadans who want their votes to be counted in such an important election,: Steyer said in a statement. "Virtual caucuses would also make participation easier for parents who can’t afford childcare and workers juggling two jobs and night shifts. Democrats should rally behind ideas that increase voter participation, not suppress them. I call on the DNC to reconsider their decision and work with officials in both states to come up with a plan that guarantees security while expanding voter participation,” his statement said.

In a statement, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said, "The Iowa Democratic Party is trying to fundamentally include more voters, which is ultimately how we change this country. The DNC should not stand in the way. I commend the Iowa Democratic Party’s efforts to open up the caucus process to people with disabilities, people with demanding work schedules and childcare needs, or others for whom the caucus process presents barriers to participation.

"While cyber-security is a very serious threat to our democracy, I believe it is imperative that the DNC reconsider its decision and immediately get to work, in partnership with the Iowa Democratic Party to ensure the caucus is both safe from interference and accessible to all," his statement said.

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