Want to caucus by phone? There's no app for that

Since we always like to stay up to date with the technology behind our elections as well as the results, I thought we’d take a peek at the new and improved caucus systems being used in both Iowa and Nevada for next year’s Democratic primaries. The Associated Press has a fairly comprehensive update on what they’re doing to address issues raised by both the voters and the DNC, particularly in terms of providing full access to registered Democrats who wish to participate. The biggest new feature includes an option to caucus by phone, but the viability of this is in question because it’s all based on landlines, not some smartphone app.

Nevada, the third state in the Democrats’ early contest sequence, has only been using caucuses for a decade, but has faced some of the same participation challenges, especially among Las Vegas casino workers who have shifts during the Saturday caucus meetings.

By opting for a dial-in program, the systems can reach people in Iowa’s and Nevada’s vast rural stretches where broadband internet coverage may be spotty. Iowa since 2014 has offered a smaller-scale tele-caucus, allowing out-of-state members of the military and Iowans living abroad to call in to live neighborhood caucus meetings and participate over the phone.

“One, we are a rural state. And let’s be honest, outside of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is a rural state. Everyone is connected by phone,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said.

So just to be clear, they are not instituting a system were voters can bring up a Democratic Party app on their smartphone and vote by pressing a button on the screen. This is just an option to dial in on what’s basically a party line, listen to the presentations and then vote over a speaker. Does this really improve anything?

As regular readers know, I’m no fan of the caucus system, but since it involves a party election rather than an actual election for public office and that’s what some states have picked, I suppose it’s not my affair. But I will grant that this change does at least partly alleviate one of the many problems with using a caucus system. When they schedule the caucus for Saturday evening or Tuesday evening, anyone working a second shift job if out of luck unless they have a very understanding boss. Having the ability to put on your phone’s headset and dial in might at least give some of those people who want to vote a better chance.

What it doesn’t do is provide any additional level of anonymity if the caller is being identified for the rest of the people attending the caucus. One of the major problems with this process is that people have to go stand in a group and publicly declare their choice, even if that means standing in front of your employer who may support another candidate. And when you switch to a new bit of technology as is being done here, even if it’s a rather old school process, there is always the risk of it going haywire at a critical moment.

Expanding access to as many people as possible is a good thing by default, I suppose, so I’d call these changes better than nothing at a minimum. But switching to an actual primary with generous opening and closing hours on primary day and an anonymous ballot would still be vastly superior.