Fearing Hackers, D.N.C. Plans to Block Iowa’s ‘Virtual’ Caucuses


WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee is preparing to block Iowa Democrats’ plans to allow some caucusgoers to vote by phone next year, bowing to security concerns about the process being hacked, according to four people with knowledge of the decision.

The committee’s announcement, expected to come by Friday afternoon in the form of a recommendation to the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, serves as a major setback to Democrats who have long hoped to expand the caucus-state electorate beyond those voters able to attend a winter-night gathering for several hours.

The Iowa Democrats’ plan would have allowed voters not attending a traditional caucus to register their preference during one of six “virtual caucuses” over the phone. But D.N.C. security officials told the rules committee at a closed-door session in San Francisco last week that they had “no confidence” such a system could remain safe from hostile hackers.

The D.N.C.’s leadership concluded that the technology that exists is not secure and poses too large a risk of interference from a foreign adversary, according to officials with knowledge of the deliberations. Several presidential campaigns expressed concern to top party officials that Iowa’s results could be compromised, people familiar with the discussions said Thursday.

The Rules and Bylaws Committee has the power to approve state plans for primaries and caucuses.

D.N.C. officials declined to comment. Officials with the Iowa Democratic Party did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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In August 2018, D.N.C. members adopted new rules for the 2020 presidential primary that encouraged states that held caucuses to switch to primaries and required caucus states to allow for a form of participation that did not require attending a caucus event. Other reforms included reducing the power of the party’s superdelegates.

Iowa Democrats, along with party officials in other states, face a Sept. 13 deadline for the D.N.C. to approve plans for their presidential primaries and caucuses. It was not immediately clear what the Iowa Democratic Party would do if its virtual caucus plan was rejected.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses are scheduled to be held Feb. 3.

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa can be hourslong affairs on often snowy winter nights. The state’s caucus rules require a candidate to receive support from at least 15 percent of the voters in the room; backers of candidates who fail to meet the 15 percent threshold are then freed to choose a different candidate. This leads to haggling and horse-trading between campaigns and places a premium on being a caucusgoer’s second or even third choice.

Party forces allied with Hillary Clinton have argued for years that states should shift from caucuses to primaries — or at least make the caucus process more accessible to people who cannot attend in person.

Nine states that held Democratic presidential caucuses in 2016 — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Washington — have switched to primaries for 2020 at the urging of the D.N.C.

Six other states, including early-voting Iowa and Nevada, will continue to hold caucuses in 2020.

Mrs. Clinton, whose 2008 presidential bid was upended by her third-place finish in Iowa, and who nearly lost the state to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016, had long been a public skeptic of Iowa’s show-up-to-caucus system.

“You know, there were a lot of people who couldn’t caucus tonight, despite the very large turnout,” Mrs. Clinton said the night she lost the 2008 Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama. “There are a lot of people who work at night, people who are on their feet, people who are taking care of patients in a hospital, or waiting on a table in a restaurant, or maybe in a patrol car keeping our streets safe.”

A February poll from The Des Moines Register found that a virtual caucus could increase participation by a third. The Monmouth University Polling Institute found earlier this month that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. increased his polling advantage in the state when the survey included Iowa Democrats who planned to participate in the virtual caucus.

Word of the imminent setback to the Iowa Democrats’ caucus-by-phone plans was first reported Thursday night by The Register.

Democrats of all stripes remain shellshocked by Russian hacking that colored the 2016 election, which included the wide release of Clinton campaign emails and D.N.C. documents.