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Could Virtual Caucuses Ever Work In Iowa?

Caucuses are weird. When else do voters cast their ballots by physically moving themselves into designated corners of a school gym? (Even your student government election probably didn’t work like this!) But that strangeness could help caucuses be one of the first types of elections where voters securely cast their ballot online.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who will win the Iowa caucuses?]

Allowing voters to caucus online would greatly improve accessibility for voters who have a hard time attending caucuses in person, whether it’s because they have a scheduling conflict or because they’re physically not able to. In fact, one Iowa poll found that this option could increase caucus turnout by about a third.

Last February, Iowa Democrats proposed a plan that would have let registered Democrats participate in “virtual caucuses” in 2020. The plan was intended to both accommodate more voters and adhere to new Democratic National Committee rules that require states to accept absentee votes. The DNC ultimately rejected Iowa’s plan due to concerns about the possibility that the process could be hacked.

But while the security concerns are real, caucuses have one peculiarity that may eventually make them easier to conduct online: Voters don’t need to be completely anonymous.

Generally, in U.S. elections and primaries, the voting process generates anonymized records; these are intended to allow officials to do things like conduct recounts or double check if someone interfered with any voting machines, while still keeping individuals’ votes secret. That anonymity makes it hard to take a traditional election online, since a person’s vote would be tied to their identity.

“But the Iowa caucus system is different in that there’s no secret ballot,” said Maggie MacAlpine, a co-founder at Nordic Innovation Labs, a firm of security consultants whose specialties include safeguarding elections.

Caucuses are, by their nature, a public affair, with voters standing in a group to support their candidate of choice. If any candidate doesn’t clear a viability threshold — usually 15 percent of the vote at that caucus location — the voters who initially backed that candidate can then move to join another group in a process called reallocation.

All that public jockeying means the vote isn’t anonymous, which makes it possible to verify a digital vote in ways we can’t with a secret ballot.

“So we could follow up with people,” MacAlpine said. “We can say, ‘It says here you voted for the purple party. Did you vote for the purple party or the orange party?’”

That’s important because any election process run online will be vulnerable to attacks, whether they’re aimed at disrupting the voting process (for example, a distributed denial-of-service or DDoS attack could overload servers and make it impossible for voters to participate) or altering the results.

But while it’s theoretically possible to hold a secure online caucus, the three experts I spoke to said it would still be very challenging to execute.

“To do it properly requires careful consideration of exactly how public a ballot should be, building and auditing software, and defining a practical approach for auditing the results during the caucusing process itself,” said Ben Adida, executive director of VotingWorks, a nonpartisan nonprofit that makes voting machines. “That’s not impossible, but it’s a very significant investment that I haven’t seen made yet, and the resulting product would really only be useful for caucuses.”

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

In the meantime, many Iowans will continue to schlep to a school gym on a brisk February evening, checking — but not voting with — their phones while they wait for the caucus to begin.

‘Don’t reduce (Iowa caucuses) to a 2-way race yet’: Nate Silver

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.