Hold the Phone: Iowa Democrats Drop Plans for Virtual Caucuses

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- "Iowa will be a caucus and Iowa will be first," Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price stressed Friday after getting official word that the new idea his party had been engineering all year won't get approval from the Democratic National Committee. Price said that he did get reassurance from DNC Chair Tom Perez in a phone call that Iowa will remain as the first-in-the-nation state in the order of presidential contests.

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The party had been working on a virtual or tele-caucus plan ever since announcing it in February. The idea followed years of criticism--perhaps stronger than ever since the 2016 election--that Iowa's Caucuses aren't accessible enough. Traditionally, the caucuses require people to physically attend a caucus site, on a specific date and time and could require the person to stay for several hours to compete the process. That makes it difficult for those people who work, are out-of-town, don't have child care, have health or mobility issues, can't find transportation or can't make it to the caucus site because of bad weather.

The Des Moines Register first reported the DNC concerns Thursday night. 

But Friday morning, the DNC sent out a statement that said Iowa and Nevada-- which was also planning a virtual caucus-- couldn't satisfy security concerns that someone could hack into the system and disrupt the process. Security concerns have become even more prevalent nationally ever since federal investigators found that Russia improperly worked to influence the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

Read the memo from the DNC regarding technology here. 

Here is the statement from the DNC Chair Tom Perez:

“The Iowa and Nevada state parties have worked diligently in their efforts to expand access to their caucuses and meet the Rules and Bylaws Committee’s new requirements. We applaud their innovative work and are grateful for their ongoing, patient cooperation with the committee. We take seriously our responsibility to carefully examine every proposed delegate selection plan with the utmost scrutiny before moving it into full compliance, especially as it relates to ensuring the security of our voting systems and the voting public. 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. For these reasons, we are recommending to the committee that virtual caucus systems not be used in the Iowa and Nevada 2020 caucus processes, and unless compliance can be met through other means, that the committee consider a waiver. We continue to have unwavering confidence in the Iowa and Nevada state parties, and we know that the Iowa Caucuses on February 3rd and Nevada Caucuses on February 22nd will be their most successful yet.”

Former longtime Senator Tom Harkin said the party--even though it now has to drop its plan for a virtual caucus--remains committed to expanding access for Iowans on caucus night. Harkin, while a member of Congress, championed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which modernized laws across the country to expand access to millions of Americans who deal with physical challenges. Harkin said, "I can guarantee we’re going to have a caucus (in 2020) that’s going to be fair, that’s going to be accessible to everyone."

Harkin acknowledged that security concerns spread far beyond politics these days. Iowa-based HyVee recently suffered a data breach. "Look what just happened to them," Harkin said, "If a company that large, that well run can't guarantee security..."

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Price wouldn't say yet what the party will do now to make the upcoming caucuses more accessible. "I'm not going to speculate what those alternatives are," he said, "We're going to take a few days and regroup and we'll circle back when we have more information to share."

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Some activists have pushed the idea of absentee voting, which Iowans already do in primaries and general elections. To keep more closely to the spirit of Democratic caucus tradition, voters could rank their top several choices for president and then turn in their absentee ballot before the caucus. Democratic caucuses require candidate to earn at least 15 percent support at a caucus site to have the ability to earn delegates. If candidates fail to do that, their supporters can switch to a different candidate who does meet the support threshold.

But the party could have to proceed cautiously with an idea like that. New Hampshire law requires that state to hold its primary before any other state. And if Iowa's absentee process too closely resembles a primary, that could incite New Hampshire's secretary of state to move up the primary to ensure that it remains first.

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So no matter what Iowa Democrats decide to do, it's complicated. They want to satisfy those who want the caucus to be more accessible. Some form of absentee balloting could do that. But they have to make sure they don't go too far and displease New Hampshire or the DNC, which would have to approve any major changes to Iowa's format.

Julian Castro, the Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was the first to publicly weigh in on the DNC's decision regarding the virtual caucuses.

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