Why Democrats Decided To Shelve Virtual Voting Until 2024
As expected, the prospect of virtual voting in 2020’s Iowa and Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses—using a mix of telephone and online systems — was canceled by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) in early September, citing cybersecurity issues. State officials were disappointed, but will explore other absentee voting options for 2020’s opening caucuses.
But the real news coming out of the RBC meeting was a striking recognition by senior DNC officials that they—the Rules panel and top DNC executives — had underestimated the threats of hacking a new and untested caucus voting system, and the accompanying prospect of propaganda spread online by anyone seeking to undermine the contests’ credibility.
The RBC co-chairs, along with DNC Chairman Tom Perez, concluded that surmounting those challenges was bigger than any single state party’s abilities, said co-chair James Roosevelt Jr. He said that after the 2020 election, the DNC would study if secure virtual voting was feasible — with the DNC possibly building such a system for 2024.
“I have mentioned to the party leadership, from Iowa and Nevada, if this resolution [nixing virtual voting in 2020] is adopted today [it was], I will be working with the DNC leadership following the General Election to undertake a DNC effort with the caucus states to develop a secure system,” said Roosevelt.
The party’s practice of having caucus states entirely manage their own voting systems had to be re-examined if online voting was to be used in an era of complex cybersecurity threats and online disinformation, he said.
“This time the effort was left to the states, because that’s the way the plans are normally developed. We put out the rules. The states develop their implementation mechanism. I think we recognize now that this is bigger than any one state problem,” Roosevelt said. “I am going to urge the DNC leadership to lead this effort following the General Election, so that we have three years… instead of eight months or five months [as in 2019] to deal with it for 2024. I have already discussed that with Chair Perez, and he supports that approach.”
It is unusual for national political parties to backtrack on their plans. Virtual participation would have been the biggest change in Iowa’s caucuses in 50 years. The path that brought the DNC to this turning point began with its post-2016 efforts to unify the party by expanding options to participate in 2020’s caucuses and primaries. Inclusion was a higher priority than facing cybersecurity issues and combating online propaganda, even though Russian-led hacking played a big role with fanning 2016’s divisions within the party.
The inclusion goals were in a 2017 Unity Reform Commission report, whose recommendations were adopted. The Rules panel folded them into its 2020 delegate selection rules adopted last year. Even though the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign had been extensively hacked by Russia — with the stolen documents yielding much fodder for pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messaging — the DNC’s leaders were not focused on this history when seeking to open up absentee voting in 2020’s caucuses.
“The Unity Commission met during the year 2017,” said Elaine Kamarck, an RBC member from Massachusetts, citing this chronology. “In that year, we had an incomplete understanding of the extent and the maliciousness of the Russian attacks on our democracy.”
The party could not take risks with 2020’s first nominating contests, she said after reiterating the targeting by Russia of election infrastructure in all states, its success in breaching one state’s registration database and getting inside other computers in some counties across the country. (This was apart from stealing DNC emails and spreading social media propaganda.)
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a national political reporter focusing on democracy issues. He has reported for nationwide public radio networks, websites, and newspapers and produced talk radio and music podcasts. He has written five books, including profiles of campaigns, voter suppression, voting rights guides and a WWII survival story currently being made into a film. His latest book is Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (Hot Books, March 2018).