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Democrats favor expanding ballot access. Just not in two key early states.

"Tele-caucus" plans to boost participation in 2020 were scrapped, leaving the party with no easy fix for what critics say is an undemocratic process.
Voters listen to instructions during a Democratic Party caucus in Nevada, Iowa, on Feb. 1, 2016.
Voters listen to instructions during a Democratic Party caucus in Nevada, Iowa, on Feb. 1, 2016.Patrick Semansky / AP file

WASHINGTON — Democrats tried to solve their caucus problem, but realized it has no easy fix.

Iowa was poised to make the biggest change ever to its famed presidential caucuses next year by allowing voters to participate remotely. The change was a response to criticism that its in-person caucus meetings disenfranchise those who can't attend.

Those plans were nixed Friday, however, as was a similar proposal for Nevada's caucus, after cybersecurity experts at the Democratic National Committee raised concerns with the phone-based "tele-caucus" system that the states had planned to use.

"We concur with the advice of the DNC’s security experts that there is no tele-caucus system available that meets our standard of security and reliability," DNC chairman Tom Perez wrote in a letter.

But the problem is much deeper than technology, since the goals of preserving the unique feel of caucuses while at the same time expanding access to them may be fundamentally incompatible.

Iowa and Nevada's caucuses will remain at the start of the primary calendar. And because campaigns had barely begun thinking through the strategy for the "tele-caucuses," little will likely change in 2020 from the way things have been done previously.

But that's exactly the problem for critics who say the caucuses need to change to keep up with the party's emphasis on voting rights and expanding access to democracy.

"Many are concerned that caucuses disenfranchise voters," a DNC commission created after the 2016 election wrote in its final report. "States who use caucuses must find new and better ways to ensure broad participation."

Unlike a primary, where voters cast a ballot like any other election, caucuses require participants to physically show up to a central location, at a specific time, on a weeknight and stick around for a few hours of party business.

Child care, elder care, disabilities, work schedules, transportation difficulties, military service and more put up hurdles that translate to lower turnout for caucuses than primaries.

The criticism is nothing new — "There were a lot of people who couldn't caucus tonight," Hillary Clinton said after her embarrassing third-place finish in Iowa's 2008 caucuses — but Democrats have become more sensitive to the issue as voting has gotten easier across the country, thanks to the rise of vote-by-mail and early voting.

Iowa and Nevada are somewhat insulated from these issues, since a culture around the caucuses has built up over decades, its state parties are well organized and provide lots of locations, and campaigns expend major resources to turn people out.

But it's a different story in other states where caucuses are often overlooked. In Kansas in 2016, for instance, Democrats in one corner of the state faced a five-hour roundtrip drive to their nearest caucus site. Statewide, turnout was a measly 6 percent.

So for 2020, the Democratic National Committee issued a new rule to encourage states to switch to primaries or provide some kind of absentee-voting option.

Half the states that had caucuses in 2016 have now abandoned them in favor of primaries for 2020, including Kansas.

But switching to a primary is out of the question for Iowa.

Not only is the state committed to its caucuses, but switching would throw the entire presidential nominating calendar into turmoil and effectively be a declaration of war on New Hampshire.

The Granite State is so committed to its first-in-the-nation primary status, which it has held since 1920, that it's actually illegal to change it. State law requires that New Hampshire votes "7 days or more" before "any other state" holds a primary.

Iowa only got around that by holding a caucus instead of primary, exploiting a loophole both national parties eventually came to embrace and protect.

"We are resolute in protecting New Hampshire's First in the Nation Primary status," New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley said in a statement Friday, just in case anyone in Iowa got any bright ideas.

So Iowa and Nevada spent months trying to find a way to reform their caucuses to respond to the DNC's rule on absentee voting.

They landed on the "tele-caucus" plan, where anyone who wants to can use their phone to call into a conference call-like system to vote.

The proposals appeared on track to being adopted until Friday.

It turns out, experts working for the DNC had been able to hack into a conference call testing the system. And given ongoing concerns about meddling from Russia and others, the party decided to abort.

"We are recommending to the committee that virtual caucus systems not be used in the Iowa and Nevada," Perez wrote in his letter to the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which governs the nominating process.

Some in Iowa now feel like they were set up to fail, tasked with solving a problem the DNC now says is unsolvable.

"We were charged by the DNC to create a system that would increase participation, and the Iowa Democratic Party did just that," said the state party's chairman, Troy Price, in a statement, barely masking his frustration. "The virtual caucus represents years of work. ... We proposed our plan seven months ago to give us the longest ramp possible to build this system."

The problem is, even with the best technology, the very thing that makes caucuses caucuses — getting a community together in one room to hash out a political decision — also makes it nearly impossible to include everyone.

Is it fair that someone who is sick, traveling, working or taking care of sick parent is not able to vote?

Now Democrats are back to square one with that question, having reversed course on New Caucus for Caucus Classic.

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro slammed the backtrack as "an affront to the principles of our democracy," which is essentially an indictment of the Iowa caucuses themselves.

"The Democratic National Committee’s decision to disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, and decrease turnout by up to a third, in the first-in-the-nation caucus state is an affront to the principles of our democracy," Castro said. "For years, our party has fought for increased access to the ballot. ... This decision goes against everything our Party says we stand for."