DNC planning to reject Iowa virtual caucus over security concerns

(CNN) — The Democratic National Committee is preparing to reject Iowa Democrats’ proposal that would allow virtual caucuses, injecting uncertainty into the party’s presidential voting process five months before the first ballots are cast, Democratic sources tell CNN.

The Democratic Party — which has been especially concerned about cyberattacks and tampering following a Russian hack effort in 2016 that led to the disclosures of emails from party leaders — is citing security concerns in making its decision, though it’s still possible a compromise could be reached. Virtual caucusing aims to give flexibility to voters — such as those who work late, have disabilities or can’t appear in-person at caucuses — by allowing them to cast votes by telephone.

Iowa, which prides itself on being the first stop in the presidential nominating contest, planned to institute virtual caucusing to comply with new rules the DNC approved in August 2018 that encouraged states to switch from caucuses to primaries.

But during the DNC’s summer meeting last week in San Francisco, party officials held multiple meetings behind closed doors with representatives from the early caucus states to discuss security issues. DNC staff and members expressed strong concern about risks involved with virtual caucusing, including that it could be tampered with or hacked.

“There have been continuing conversations between Iowa and the DNC, including both the DNC’s cybersecurity staff and the co-chairs of the Rules and Bylaws committee,” a Democratic official told CNN Friday.

The leadership of the DNC will tell the Rules and Bylaws Committee that the technology needed for virtual caucuses to take place “is not secure and poses a huge risk of interference from a foreign adversary,” a source briefed on the matter told CNN.

“The proposed system could lead to a potential hack of the caucuses and that is too big a risk for the party,” the source said.

The source added that several presidential campaigns had raised concerns about virtual caucusing to the DNC.

A second Democratic source told CNN that the DNC informed Iowa and Nevada that there are major vulnerabilities in their plans for virtual caucusing. These plans in their current form are unlikely to be approved by the Rules and Bylaws Committee, meaning the states need to explore other options.

Iowa officials, frustrated that the DNC is preparing to reject their plan, have been working with party officials to find an alternative solution.

The second Democratic source tells CNN the biggest concerns are with Iowa because virtual caucusing solely involves voting by phone without a paper ballot. Nevada already had an option beyond vote by phone that included in-person early voting, which could be part of the first in the West’s state solution to getting their plan officially approved.

Among the options being considered to bring Iowa’s plan in compliance is to give them a waiver for the new rules that passed last year.

Another could be to have some form of paper ballots, though that could provoke protests from New Hampshire for seeming too much like a primary.

A Democratic official told CNN that the DNC has no interest in spurring a calendar fight between Iowa and New Hampshire, the two earliest states on the primary calendar.

And there are no plans to take away Iowa’s status as the first-in-the nation caucus state, the official said.

The official said the biggest concern among DNC leadership is the prospect of having a hacked caucus, something that they worried could entirely destabilize the nomination process.

Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, told CNN that he and his party remain “resolute in protecting the first-in-the-nation primary” but believe that the DNC and the Iowa Democratic Party will work out their issues over virtual caucusing and not step on New Hampshire’s status as the first primary.

“We are committed to the four early states, we remain resolute in protecting the first-in-the-nation primary and we believe that the folks in our other sister states are committed to each other as well. We are four states that work closely together and we stand together,” Buckley said in an interview Friday.

The Des Moines Register and The New York Times were among the outlets to earlier report on the DNC’s intentions to reject the plan. CNN has reached out to the DNC for comment.

To meet the DNC rules, several states, including Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, have switched from Democratic presidential caucuses to primaries for the upcoming presidential election.

Several of the states’ plans were conditionally approved in June by the Rules and Bylaws committee, which has final approval over the plans. The committee also met with the states’ representatives in a closed-door session last week to discuss security issues. States must receive final approval from the committee to hold their presidential contests next year.

The DNC has sought to take steps to prevent a repeat of 2016’s hacks by investing in cybersecurity, including by hiring Bob Lord, a former Yahoo! executive, as the party’s chief security officer.

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