The states represent half of the first four contests in the Democratic primary process, which create critical launching pads for winners to become the party’s presidential nominee.
After the Democratic National Committee passed new rules in August requiring states to expand voting opportunities, the states changed the process to allow for virtual caucusing. This gives voters who work late, have disabilities or simply can’t make the in-person contest a chance to partake in the process.
What is virtual caucusing and how does it work?
The virtual caucus is meant to simulate the same experience voters have at the in-person precincts.
During a typical in-person caucus, voters choose their first preference for president. If one or more of those candidates don’t receive at least 15% of that initial vote, they are removed from contention. Any voter backing those candidates can “realign” to pick their second preference. This continues until all candidates receive the minimum 15% viability threshold of support
Both states will give these voters a chance to rank their preferences, so they can realign them if their candidate of choice doesn’t reach the threshold. Iowa currently plans to give voters up to five choices. Nevada hasn’t determined its maximum amount of choices yet.
Iowa will hold six virtual caucuses by phone, one every day from January 29 through February 3, 2020, during which voters will hear an introduction from a chair and a possible “final pitch” from the campaigns before voting. The pitch could also be published in letters or videos on a website beforehand.
“We looked at a lot of different [technology] options,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told CNN. “As we looked at it, we wanted to have the type of technology that was as inclusive as possible. There are some people who may not have access or aren’t proficient at using a computer. We figured [phones are] the most inclusive technology that we could use.”
Nevada will go further, offering virtual and in-person early voting. Virtual caucusing will take place over two days by phone; other details are still being worked out. The state party will also have early voting at precinct sites around the state, as well as Caucus Day voting locations on the Las Vegas strip, targeted at workers in the hospitality industry who might not be able to make it to their precinct to vote.
“The big priority is ensuring this is an easy and short process,” Nevada Democratic Party Caucus Director Shelby Wiltz told CNN. “In person takes time – this will obviously be a much shorter option for folks who don’t have a lot of time on their hands.”
Participants voting virtually will have multiple opportunities to confirm and change their votes during the call and at the end before they are submitted.
How will the votes be counted?
Counting the votes won’t be easy, nor the same in the states.
Iowa is creating “virtual counties” in each of its four congressional districts. After the final virtual caucuses conclude, voters that participated will be split up by into their district, as determined by their addresses, and counted as part of that overall number.
Price said allocating each participant by precincts in the state’s 99 counties would be confusing for both voters and precinct captains.
Nevada is counting all virtual and early voting within each voters’ precinct. They plan to have the results combined at the precinct site during the in-person contest.
“We feel it’s really important that no matter how you choose, your vote is counted equally,” Nevada Democratic Party Communications Director Molly Forgey told CNN. “We will be tabulating everyone’s vote at the precinct level, so if you participate early or virtually, you will be redirected to your precinct and counted with your neighbors.”
How are they preparing for this?
The state parties know all eyes will be on their states next February.
Iowa and Nevada were both bitterly contested by the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns last cycle. The close results fueled fights between the campaigns during the proceeding conventions that eventually picked the delegates to the national convention.
To head some of that off, the parties are educating anyone and everyone who will listen.
Both states will create teams and websites with multiple training tools on them. The early focus on precinct organizers, campaigns and voters are critical to ensuring the contests are run smoothly.
“We are going to be starting training here in the next couple of weeks,” Price said. “We did a round of training campaigns that just concluded over the month of May. We sat down with all the campaigns that have a presence on the ground. The campaigns play a big role.”
How are they dealing with security?
Looming over all of this is security. The DNC, state parties, and voters in the states are hyper-focused on security, including verifying voters, technology, and ensuring no vote tampering.
“Security is our number one priority,” Wiltz said. “It’s something we think about all the time and something we think about in every step of this process.”
Final voter verification details are still being worked out in the states. Two-factor authentication will be required for voters in Iowa with some form of personal identification like the last four digits of a social security number or driver’s license number. Nevadans will receive a unique login and credential after registering to vote virtually. The parties will also be testing their systems with outside groups and the DNC before February to ensure their systems are secure.
The future is now?
Is this the beginning for virtual voting?
It’s too soon to say whether this is a model for the future. Campaigns, voters, state parties and the DNC will hone in on the process and weigh in in the months before and after on how well it goes.
“We recognize the importance that has on conversations going forward,” Price said. “I think if it goes well, we’ll learn a lot from this process. I think if it goes well, it will be something people use going forward to increase participation and increase access to voting.”