Press 1 for Harris. Press 2 for Biden ...'Tele-voting' comes to the presidential race

Democrats in Iowa and Nevada will have a chance to cast their "ballot" for the party's nominee from their own homes.
Image: Bernie Sanders Campaigns Across Iowa Ahead Of Caucuses
Voters listen to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a campaign rally at the Grand River Event Center in Dubuque, Iowa, on Jan. 29, 2016.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — You can phone it in.

For the first time, Democrats in Iowa and Nevada will be able to participate in their states' crucial early presidential caucuses next year without actually having to show up.

It's a major change from election years past and one designed to make the Democratic caucuses more democratic and boost participation since not everyone has the time or ability to spend several hours of a specific evening attending an in-person caucus meeting.

"This has been one of the challenges and criticisms that people have had of the Iowa caucuses since they were created," Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, told NBC News. "So we've always been looking for ways to address this."

Both Iowa and Nevada will now allow any Democrat who wants to to use a telephone to dial into a "virtual caucus," where they'll rank a handful of their choices for the presidency.

Iowa will offer Democrats six chances to "tele-caucus" in the days leading up to its Feb. 3 first-in-the-nation caucus. "We wanted a process that would continue to allow the precincts to remain the central tenant of our caucuses, while allowing some people who might not otherwise be able to to participate," Price said.

Nevada, which comes just after Iowa and New Hampshire's primary, will offer four days of in-person early caucusing during the run up to its Feb. 22 main event, in addition to options on two days to dial into the virtual caucus.

"We know it is imperative that Democrats across our state have every option and opportunity available to vote," Nevada State Democratic Party chairman William McCurdy II said in a statement.

The mandate from the Democratic National Committee to make caucusing easier comes as states are giving voters more options than ever to cast a ballot. Early voting in last year's midterms far surpassed that of prior midterms as 39 states now offer early voting and 28 offer absentee voting to anyone who wants it. In 2020, three states will mail a ballot to every single voter.

In general, caucuses will play a smaller role in the 2020 nominating process than they have in recent election cycles.

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Just seven states are currently planning to hold caucuses instead of primaries next year, down from 15 in 2016, while most overseas U.S. territories will continue to use caucuses.

All of this has been pushed by the DNC, acting on the recommendations of a unity commission formed in the wake of the bruising 2016 primary.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the commission lobbied the DNC to weaken the power of super delegates, while Hillary Clinton supporters fought for caucus reform.

Clinton underperformed in caucuses compared with primaries, and many have argued caucuses are at odds with Democrats' core value of making voting easier and maximizing participation.

What makes caucuses unique also makes them problematic. They're sometimes raucous, kinetic expressions of democracy, where supporters of different candidates get together in a big room and try to literally move backers of other candidates into their corner.

But if a voter can't make it in person, they're out of luck, which has led to assertions that caucuses end up essentially disenfranchising Americans simply because they have to work evenings or provide child care, or are out of town, can't drive or may be disabled.

"The caucus method of voting consistently produces lower voter turnout than the primary election method of voting," the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, which runs a voter protection hotline during major elections, wrote in a 2016 report. "The comparisons are striking."

Both Iowa and Nevada looked at a wide range of options for virtual caucusing, from web-based services to smartphone apps. But each state party decided on a telephone-based system, since some voters don't have reliable internet access and they say it's harder to hack.

Security is a major concern, which is why both state parties are requiring people who want to take part in the virtual caucus to pre-register months in advance, even though both states have same-day voter registration. The early registration will allow a voter's identity to be verified by the state party through a multifactor ID system.

Details are still being worked out, but Nevada, for instance, will provide everyone who pre-registers with a unique number that they will need to punch in when they dial into the virtual caucus.

The new system also will change the complex calculations campaigns make as they try to maximize the number of delegates they get from each state, since delegates to the Democratic National Convention, not votes, are ultimately what determines the nominee.

For instance, some campaigns say they are likely to push supporters in Iowa to caucus in person since the number of delegates at stake in the tele-caucus is capped, but they cautioned it's too early to say for sure how the new system will affect their plans since they're waiting on details.

In Iowa, virtual caucuses will account for an additional 10 percent of delegates available and be treated almost like an extra county in each of the state's four congressional districts.

In Nevada, virtual caucus-goers will be counted at their home precinct, as if they attended in-person, with no cap on the number of delegates they could determine.

Iowans will be able to rank up to five choices for the presidential nomination, while Nevada has yet to determine the number it will offer.

Offering multiple options is necessary to simulate in-person caucuses. That's because in caucuses, candidates who don't reach at least 15 percent support are disqualified and their backers then have to switch to another candidate. The process continues until voters end up with a candidate who has crossed the "viability" threshold.

Both states' are still waiting on final approval from the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which meets next week in Washington.

"We are working with every state party that is integrating these virtual tools so they can make their voting process secure and successful," said DNC spokesman David Bergstein.