When it comes to innovative ways to increase voter turnout, Utah seems to break all the rules.
This is a state that lets you vote by mail, vote early and, at least for a three-year trial period, lets you register on the day you vote. Conventional wisdom says that if Republicans run your state, you aren’t supposed to have all those things.
“When I go to national election conventions, people are all scratching their heads,” Mark Thomas, chief deputy to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, told me. “We’re doing things that only some of the liberal states are doing.”
So it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that, if you are a registered Republican in Utah, you will have the chance to vote online in the upcoming presidential preference caucus, March 22.
That’s just another bold step in a conservative state that’s surprisingly progressive about elections, right?
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Well, it’s bold all right. As Shakespeare said, “Boldness be my friend.”
But as English essayist Charles Lamb said, “’Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.”
Internet voting may not be entirely nonsense, but there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about it.
To be clear about what this is and what it isn’t, Utah’s Internet caucus is an initiative of the Republican Party, not the state. The party has paid more than $80,000 to set it up and is contracting with Smartmatic.
Party Chairman James Evans told me he is confident in the firm because it administers elections in Estonia, a tiny country that votes online. Anyone who feels uncomfortable about it can still go to a caucus meeting and vote in person, or request to vote absentee.
The state is watching from afar, but so far there is no indication it wants to make your smartphone a regular part of Election Day.
Also, Democrats aren’t getting in on the fun. You’ll have to use paper ballots and a pencil if you wish to choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
But the Republican Party is billing its caucus as the largest online election in U.S. history, which may be true considering there isn’t much history to speak of. You don’t have to use a lot of imagination to figure out why this may be.
As MIT professor Ron Rivest has said generally about claims that Internet voting can be made safe, “If they’ve really solved the Internet security and cybersecurity problem, what are they doing implementing voting systems? They should be working with the Department of Defense or financial industry.”
In other words, if the State Department can’t keep its employees’ files safe from Chinese hackers, and if retailers such as Target, with millions of dollars of private money at stake, can’t keep hackers away (the company recently agreed to pay banks $39 million to settle a data breach lawsuit), what makes people think democracy can do any better?
it's a logical question to ask before taking this idea further.
About this time in the argument, someone usually reminds us that almost everyone today either banks online or purchases items through websites that range from small Etsy shops to the largest department stores. But we accept a certain amount of risk when we buy online, measured against convenience and a host of other factors. Businesses figure in a certain amount of fraud as the cost of doing business. Democracy can’t afford such a margin of error.
That is especially true when you consider that votes, by their nature, must remain anonymous, making audit trails that much more difficult.
Utah’s Republican preference caucus may go off without a hitch, with voters protected by 30-digit pin numbers. It may indeed lead to a higher turnout. Evans said that is the idea, to "allow one more option of convenience."
Just don’t expect the state to embrace widespread Internet voting during general elections any time soon.
Utah is gradually becoming a vote-by-mail state, although, as Thomas said, the move in that direction has been cautious. That is as it should be.
Innovation can be good. Give the state GOP credit for making caucuses more accessible. Let’s just hope only eligible people access it.