Virtual Caucus at Risk After DNC Experts Hacked Conference Call

Tyler Pager

(Bloomberg) -- The Democratic National Committee has raised substantial cybersecurity concerns over virtual caucusing, potentially dooming the effort just five months before Iowa begins its process of choosing a presidential nominee.

At a closed-door session of the Rules and By-Laws Committee on Thursday, the DNC told the panel that experts convened by the party were able to hack into a conference call among the committee, the Iowa Democratic Party and Nevada Democratic Party, raising concerns about teleconferencing for virtual caucuses, according to three people who were at the meeting.

For the first time the DNC is requiring states that hold caucuses instead of primary elections to offer voters a way to participate without showing up at sites across the state. Iowa and Nevada are building a teleconference system for 2020, and Alaska plans a phone and web-based operation.

The state parties are waiting for final approval of their plans for the February caucuses in Iowa and Nevada and hoped it would come at the DNC’s summer meeting this week in San Francisco.

“We are continuing to work with Democrats in these states to address the Rules and By-Laws committee’s questions about their proposed plans," the DNC said in a statement Saturday.

Russian Hacks

The DNC is particularly sensitive to cybersecurity issues, given the hack into DNC emails in 2016, believed to have be carried out by Russian operatives.

The test and the revelation of hacking enraged party officials in caucus states who say the systems were not fully built and the hack of a general teleconferencing system is not comparable. The state party officials also said they were continuing to address any potential vulnerabilities as they build the system.

Caucus-state officials offered a litany of complaints: That the DNC created the rules about absentee participation without considering how the states should achieve that goal; that the DNC offered little help in devising a virtual system, what state officials called the most significant change in caucus procedure since modern caucuses began in 1972; and were slow to raise concerns about security.

In states that caucus, voters gather in homes, businesses and other places in each precinct to choose their preference for a nominee. Some have said the fact that a voter’s physical presence is required has diminished participation.

Easing Participation

The virtual caucusing rules were developed in response to recommendations from the Unity Reform Commission, created to address the tension between delegates for nominee Hillary Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Sanders delegates complained that the DNC favored Clinton and made participation difficult in caucus states.

DNC members and party officials say the committee’s final decision about the future of virtual caucusing could come within a week. It is unclear how states would fulfill the requirement to have absentee participation if the virtual caucus plans are scrapped. If the state parties are granted a waiver to ignore the requirement, it could create intense backlash.

“We’re continuing the conversation with the DNC and we look forward to them being full partners with us in our caucuses,” said Kevin Geiken, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. He declined to comment on the ongoing conversations between the state party and the DNC.

Committee Divisions

According to participants at the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, members were divided over how to proceed with the virtual caucus option. Some members said the cybersecurity concerns were too great to give final approval to a virtual system. Others sympathized with the state party officials and said they feel confident they will make the system work but the DNC should be doing more to help the states.

Whether the DNC decides to proceed with the virtual option holds high stakes given that 10% of the total delegates in Iowa will be determined by the results of those who participate virtually. A CNN/Des Moines Register poll conducted in June found that 28% of likely Iowa voters plan to use in the virtual option.

About a dozen voters interviewed recently in Iowa said they either didn’t know about the virtual caucus system yet, or knew about it but didn’t understand how it would work. Campaign officials said they were still trying to figure out how it would affect organizing and turnout operations.

The Iowa Democratic Party said it has a robust voter education program planned for the fall to inform voters about the virtual option, and officials with the party said they have and will continue to train campaigns. However, that hinges on final approval from the DNC.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyler Pager in San Francisco at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Steve Geimann

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