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Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at a town hall meeting in North Las Vegas in March. Nevada is one of two states that will allow participation by phone in the 2020 caucuses.

Pivotal caucuses will allow Democrats to phone it in

If you use the telephone to declare your presidential preference, have you really participated in your party's caucuses?

Yes, say the Democrats of Iowa and Nevada, where next winter's caucuses will be crucial to winnowing the sprawling field of candidates into a handful with a genuine shot at getting nominated to take on President Trump.

In both bellwether contests, where human contact has been a central part of the process for years, it will no longer be necessary to join an evening of last-minute jawboning and deal-cutting before casting a ballot in an overheated church basement or high school cafeteria. A Democratic loyalist will be able to, quite literally, phone it in.

The tele-caucusing innovations were announced by party officials in Nevada on Monday, when the Democratic National Committee signaled its endorsement of the plan unveiled a few months ago in Iowa, home of the first contest. The states are also part of the first experiments with ranked-choice voting at the presidential level.

The changes have been pushed on them by the DNC in an effort to open the presidential nominating process to more people and to foster more competition. Voting by phone should especially help boost turnout by enfranchising Democrats who have been excluded from past caucuses because they work nights, are physically disabled, can't find child care or aren't confident driving long distances on a snowy winter night. And laborers, young parents and the elderly are all key constituencies within the party.

Surveys in Nevada haven't been taken yet. But polling in Iowa suggest as many as one in five Democrats will participate remotely and virtually. If that happens, it will underscore one of the fastest developing trends in the world of modernizing elections with a priority on expanding turnout: Letting people vote in as many ways as possible for as long as practical – by phone or by mail as well as in person, not just on Election Day but for weeks beforehand.

Because of the time commitment involved to both get to and participate in caucuses, they have had notoriously low turnout and so have been abandoned by the Democrats in all but a handful of states for 2020. Last time, for example, just 8 percent of Nevadans of voting age went to either the Republican or Democratic caucus – but turnout in the two New Hampshire primaries a week earlier crested 52 percent.

Iowa and Nevada have decided to use dial-in voting instead of balloting online, not only to minimize the potential for hacking but also to boost turnout by poor or rural people who don't have broadband Internet access.

Both state parties will require Democratic voters to register online in advance of their virtual caucus, when they will have to verifying their identity with a "multi-factor authentication" including a one-time-use-only PIN. Voters will be able to choose from several languages before declaring their preferences and then will be able to confirm their choices before their votes are recorded.

Yet officials acknowledge that relying on phone systems does raise security concerns.

"Are they unhackable? Certainly not," Jeremy Epstein, a voting systems expert with ACM, the largest international association of computer science professionals, told the Associated Press. "None of these technologies are really bullet proof."

Iowans will have six days in which to participate, including the Feb. 3 in-person caucus night. Nevadans can participate Feb. 16 or 17 but, unlike in Iowa, they can also choose to join one of four days of in-person early caucusing.

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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