Open the Caucuses to Online Voters

In this diary, I wish to argue about how historic this election cycle’s caucuses were in regards to technology and voter outreach. I’ve never been to a caucus (I’ve lived most of my life in Georgia, a primary state), but they look pretty cool for the competitive, in-your-face nature of haggling with your neighbor for your candidate of choice.

The uses of tech-assisted absentee caucusing may have flown under the radar of national news, but this election year was certainly a watershed for the reform of the caucus process. 

I was just reading about how, earlier this year, Iowa and Nevada’s Democrats introduced the first-ever “Tele-caucus“, whereby registered-voting residents living abroad (Peace Corps volunteers, military servicemembers, students, diplomats, and families) can absentee-caucus over the phone in a conference call.

The problem: tele-caucusers had to register a week in advance, prepay for long-distance service and stay up for potential hours during the caucus (at night in many locations).

Meanwhile, Nevada Republicans allow for an absentee ballot to be sent in the mail before the day of the caucus. Democrats in other states with caucuses don’t yet have tele-caucuses, although many this election cycle (compared to 2011-2012) had absentee caucus mail-in ballots. 2016 is the first time that many states’ caucuses have allowed for absentee ballots, which are a given in primary states.

But Utah’s Republicans, in a very interesting move, shelled out $80,000 to the firm Smartmatic for an online absentee caucus voting system. This was the first time that any state-wide major political party had allowed online voting, both domestic and abroad, and was not without withering critique by Wired Magazine on security grounds.

Utah’s online caucus is a interesting, but controversial start toward technologization of the caucus process. Utah’s parties, in a rare move, switched from a primary to a caucus after the 2015 legislature decided not to spend $3 million on a presidential primary for political parties; Utah’s GOP initiated the switch in order to generate turnout, and the Democrats were forced to hold their own caucus as a result.

In the interest of furthering tech in politics, I think that both phoning in or absentee-mailing your caucus vote are small-fry options for participation in such an in-your-face event as a caucus on an absentee basis.

I would say that the fullest absentee participation in an in-your-face caucus would be online.

Caucuses are criticized for being too similar to the “smoke-filled rooms where party bosses called the shots” in yesteryear; caucuses are regularly lambasted as “undemocratic”, “elitist” and “ageist” compared to primaries. On the other hand, defenses of caucuses note the outsized role played by non-monied, dedicated, knowledgeable grassroots activists in the caucusing process and the community-building, face-to-face nature of caucusing.

But just as early and absentee voting allows for people to vote at their pace, online caucusing should allow for more participants in a party caucus to haggle for their candidates’ vote in real-time from a distance.

Ideas for Online Caucusing

I think the Utah GOP, which gave all of their delegates to Ted Cruz in this process BTW, demonstrated where the Democratic caucusing tradition can progress.

Democrats can build on top of this by accentuating online caucuses with real-time video chat. I look for an example at how the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly accommodates so-called “off-site delegations” with online voting software, video streaming and chat.

Also, as these parties expand their caucuses to absentee votes in the coming years and Utah’s GOP has demonstrated state-of-the-art online caucusing, I think the live, synchronous nature of caucusing, such as that of Iowa’s Democratic caucus should be expanded in time by adding 24 or more hours for online caucusers to haggle and vote through online video and text chat. This would allow residents who are serving or studying abroad, as well as the disabled, aged, child-raising, employed or non-Anglophone, more time to caucus in real time than the typical small window period of less than a day.

Caucuses should be much easier for citizens’ participation, and I think that caucuses can afford to be broadened to a larger population of voters. Early online caucusing should become a norm for those who want to keep caucuses going as a party-organized affair.

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