If you live in one of 90 Utah cities, you may rush home one day this week, yank open your mail box and find it: your official ballot for next month’s municipal election, including the all-important question of whether you want to raise your taxes to help pay for transit and roads.
It will be an interesting question to answer, considering you won’t have to use transit or any roads to make your voice known.
Welcome to the new polling place of the 21st century. Earl Long, the colorful former governor of Louisiana (and brother of the even more colorful Huey Long) once said of his political power, “I can make them voting machines sing Home Sweet
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Home.” Today, home sweet home increasingly is where the polling booth is. Your heart is where you put that check mark with a No. 2 pencil.
Instead of the communal experience of meeting neighbors in line at the local school, signing the big book and getting a sticker you can proudly wear to show you voted, Election Day will be something we do in private, at the kitchen table or somewhere else quiet, hopefully away from outsiders trying to coach us. If we’re wise, we will have a computer handy to help us study the issues.
Even if we’re not quite there, yet, it won’t be the end of the republic. It’s just not where many people thought we would be in 2015.
Utah’s move into mail-only voting applies only to this year’s municipal election, and each city got to choose for itself how to proceed. Only 90 of 246 cities chose to do it, but they were some of the largest ones.
But turnout in the summer primary election hit 32 percent in Salt Lake County — easily more than twice the normal percentage — so the state may be tempted to make voting by mail apply to statewide general elections, as well.
I’ve written about this before. This gradual nationwide embrace of hearth, home and ballot has happened more or less spontaneously and in defiance of where politicians pointed us after Bush vs. Gore in 2000.
But a popular question persists. Why, if we do our banking and purchasing on the Internet, can’t we cast our ballots that way, too?
A paper published recently by the Heritage Foundation and authored by former Federal Election commissioner Hans A. von Spakovsky, provides a simple answer. It’s not safe, and it probably won’t ever be safe unless someone redoes the entire architecture of the Internet.
For that matter, it’s not safe for you to do business online, either. We know this instinctively and are willing to take a measure of risk. Banks and merchants are willing to write-off a certain amount to fraud. But democracy has to be more careful.
“Internet voting is vulnerable to cyber-attack and fraud-vulnerabilities inherent in current hardware and software, as well as the basic manner in which the Internet is organized,” Spakovsky wrote. “It is unlikely that these vulnerabilities will be eliminated at any time in the near future.”
That’s much the same as what Ron Rivest, MIT computer scientist and cryptography pioneer, said three years ago at a Princeton symposium on the subject. The website technologyreview.com quoted him saying vendors are constantly claiming to have solved the security problems with online voting.
If this is true, he said, “what are they doing implementing voting systems? They should be working with the Department of Defense or financial industry.”
The United States has a long and colorful history of voter fraud, ranging from the small-time and petty to the grandiose and audacious. It’s safe to say the lure has not disappeared, just as it’s ominous to consider recent hacks into government systems allegedly traced to China.
The worst part, experts say, is that someone could attack election results and remain entirely undetected.
That’s something to consider as you rip open that envelope this week. Yes, your neighbor might steal your ballot and forge your signature. Some underhanded campaign worker might “help” your grandmother vote in the nursing home.
There is no completely foolproof way to vote.
Paper and pencil isn’t bad, though, and it might be here to stay.