Just over a month until the Democratic National Committee will hold its nominating convention, some DNC members privately describe mounting questions about technology, logistics, and contingency plans that, they contend, aren’t being adequately addressed by top committee officials.
“We are scrambling to get ready, and know, and have all these answers. And we don’t have them,” said Terry Tucker, a DNC member from Colorado who serves on the platform committee and is working as a progressive bridge between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) camps.
“We’re waiting on procedural answers from the DNC. And we haven’t gotten them yet. I don’t know if that means that they’ve formulated them and they’re not releasing them or whether that means they’re still formulating them. I have no idea what the answers to those questions are,” she said.
The DNC has worked for months to adjust plans as the unpredictable nature of coronavirus continues to upend the presidential campaign cycle. Originally slated for this week, Democrats announced a new date of Aug. 17 after consulting with public health experts. In late June, the committee formalized a decision, the early planning of which was first reported by The Daily Beast, to host a scaled-down version with smaller virtual satellite locations.
On Friday, DNC Secretary Jason Rae sent a letter to each delegate who has been elected and certified, as well as state party chairs, the vice chair, and executive director, outlining steps the committee has taken to make virtual convention voting possible, which will take place from Aug. 3 to Aug. 15. The letter indicated that every delegate will be sent “individualized and serial identifiers” over email. Delegates will then be able to submit their ballots electronically to their state parties.
The Democratic National Convention Committee’s tech team “will work with each state party to establish a secure system to receive the ballots from their state’s delegates,” the letter reads. “The state parties will be responsible for collecting all ballots from convention delegates as they would if we were conducting votes in person at the convention. At the conclusion of voting, each state delegation chair will submit a tally sheet to the secretary’s office that formally records the number of votes cast on each item of convention business.”
Towards the bottom of the letter, Rae briefly mentions that “alternate methods of voting are available” if a delegate experiences technical issues, such as not having internet access, without elaborating further.
Asked specifically if the DNC’s Friday letter was sufficient in addressing her concerns, Tucker said no without hesitation. “It didn’t give us concrete answers to any of our questions,” she said. “It was very general. I don’t need general information. I’ve got people asking me and I don’t know what to tell them.”
Allison Stephens, a DNC member from Nevada who had first backed former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and then Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the primary, said she was relieved about the DNC’s decision to host a largely virtual event, especially when attempting to create a stark contrast to President Trump’s convention plans.
But Stephens also recalled mounting a strong case for a virtual caucus in Nevada in late February, just weeks after the digital meltdown that occurred during the Iowa caucuses, and being abruptly shut down by the DNC over stated security concerns at the time.
“This is one of those situations where it’s forcing them to stop just making excuses and figure out how we’re going to be able to use technology to make these things more accessible for people,” Stephens said. “I’m glad they’ve been put in the position to figure it out.”
Stephens said on Monday that she had read Rae’s memo, but had yet to hear specific details for the virtual voting process. “I have had minimal communication from the DNC about the logistical piece and how it would work. My understanding is that they’re still trying to figure that out from a technology kind of standpoint,” she said.
Another DNC member audibly laughed when pressed if the document that went out on Friday was detailed enough. “You’ve seen the memo. It was not detailed,” the member said. “There’s a lot of questions and not a lot of questions right now.”
The growing concerns from individual members help to further demonstrate the well-documented closed-door nature of DNC leadership keeping the party’s virtual convention planning close to the chest, even among its own high-ranking officials, until just before the news goes public.
The most recent example of that opaqueness came from a top DNC leader on Thursday. Just one day before the DNC publicly announced that delegates to the party’s convention will vote remotely in August, the chair of the DNC’s Black Caucus sent a letter to fellow caucus members emphasizing the committee’s vagueness around virtual voting and the urgency of the matter.
“We are presently working in the dark,” Virgie Rollins, the chair of the DNC Black Caucus, wrote in a memo obtained by The Daily Beast that was distributed to members on Thursday morning. “The convention is one month away so time is getting short.”
Collins’ one-paragraph letter provided a brief status update to DNC Black Caucus members waiting to find out critical logistical details about the process for remotely nominating Biden in just over four weeks.
“As you know we received the information that there will not be an in person DNC National Convention. I have been waiting like everyone else trying to get the most up to date information,” Rollins, who is from Michigan, wrote. “In preparation for the convention we will be working with the digital team to live stream, zoom, utilize satellite and all other forms of social media. When I get additional details on how we will be operating or what will be allowed I will let you know.”
Rollins did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether the DNC’s memo answered any outstanding questions about the convention.
Reached for comment, DNC deputy communications director Chris Meagher said: “The DNC is working to ensure that every delegate can play their critical role in this historic occasion without risk to personal or public health. As more details continue to be rolled out after careful consultation with public health officials, we will continue to brief DNC members and delegates and answer any questions they might have.
“As part of that, we are beginning to onboard state parties, which includes training state party staff, and we will also hold briefings on the delegate voting process so they can ask any questions ahead of voting in August. After announcing our plans Friday, there were calls both Friday and Monday to go over the voting information and to answer any questions, and we will continue to do so leading up to the convention.”
The DNC’s push to get delegates up to speed with technology training comes as Democrats and Biden himself continue to take extra precautions for COVID-19. Biden’s campaign has hosted five calls for its delegates, with additional webinars accessible to delegates to ask questions of both Biden’s and Sanders’ teams.
The party’s social distancing moves have been in accordance with public health recommendations. Those efforts are in direct contrast to Trump and the Republican National Committee, which is plowing ahead with plans to host its convention in person in Florida, a national hotbed of COVID-19 cases, after its first host city, Charlotte, North Carolina, would not guarantee that such a large event could be held indoors.
Some members recalled hosting successful virtual state conventions, including in several battlegrounds, during lockdown, with help from the DNC.
Massachusetts, for example, was one of the first states to test run a virtual convention on April 4, which the party now considers a prototype for digital convention success. Gus Bickford, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, emphasized that the DNC has taken additional steps to address cybersecurity concerns.
“The security that the DNC has developed, which I would agree they needed to, was significantly more powerful than what we did,” Bickford said.
In June, Biden headlined the Nevada convention, calling it an “important battleground state” for his campaign. The same month in Wisconsin, where he will be in person in Milwaukee to formally accept the nomination, state party officials put on a generally smooth all-digital event.
But replicating smaller state party functions at the national level is more burdensome, other members agreed, largely due to size and varying degrees of delegates’ familiarity with the party’s new and existing technology. Additional communication would be tremendously helpful in getting all states on the same page, they said.
“I think they’re taking bits and pieces from different states,” the member said. “It’s a system that will work, but for it to work, people need to understand it.”