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Utah GOP convention going electronic, but not without controversy

Published: Monday, April 16 2012 9:47 p.m. MDT

Delegates sit and listen at the beginning of the 2011 Republican State Convention Saturday, June 18, 2011 at South Towne Exposition Center.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Top list: Who are Utah's delegates?

View videos at left of delegates Marla Howard, Judy Moore and Kameron Simmons, speaking about the issues.

You can follow the delegates through our blog and their @UTDelegates Twitter feed.

SALT LAKE CITY — Delegates will be greeted by the usual flurry of banners, booths and buttons Saturday at the Republican state convention. They will also be handed a small electronic keypad — their ballot — the only one they will need all day.

Instead of standing in long lines to cast paper ballots for each round of voting and then waiting for results to be tabulated, delegates could vote quickly and efficiently from the comfort of their seats, party leaders said.

But, delegates will have to approve the new balloting system before it can be used and — based on the current campaign against changing how votes are cast — that vote could prove to be one of the more contentious battles this weekend.

Party leaders are meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposed change amid threats of a lawsuit by one congressional candidate.

State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the electronic balloting process will be faster and more secure than using paper ballots, and the often-grueling convention day will be over sooner so people can get on with their lives.

Wright said he's hoping the new devices shave six to eight hours off the time it normally takes for 4,000 delegates to vote in 11 races, some with as many as 11 candidates.

"We've got a record number of races and probably a record number of candidates," he said. "I'm proud of the Republican Party. I'm proud we're bringing (the voting process) into the 21st century. … I'm proud that we're getting people home to their families sooner."

The party has posted an instructional video on YouTube explaining how the electronic balloting system works.

But some party faithful say the new system lacks verifiability and needs to be fixed before the opening ballot.

Bill Buhler, a GOP delegate and owner of an information technology services company, said he initially was excited for electronic balloting. But as he looked into the process, he saw several red flags.

Delegates need a way to know if their votes were recorded accurately, Buhler said.

"I really want the electronic voting to happen," he said. "I just feel there are a couple issues that need to be worked out. It needs end-to-end verifiability."

Buhler suggests that party leaders post each vote during the convention, identified by the electronic pads' serial numbers. Each voter could then verify that his or her votes are correct.

That could be done online or by simply by posting printouts on the wall, ordering them by serial number, he said.

Third District Congressional candidate Brian Jenkins, who has similar concerns, said that if party leaders don't resolve the verifiability issue, he is prepared to file for an injunction that would prohibit use of the electronic devices Saturday. He has sent automated calls to all 4,000 delegates with a recorded message warning against the electronic balloting system.

The party must guarantee a secret ballot, and posting the each ballot — even by serial number — may violate that guarantee, Wright said. The system is secure and will be audited by a local, independent auditing company, Tanner LLC, he said.

And delegates themselves will get the final word on the issue. The system can't be used unless delegates first vote in its favor, Wright noted.

Both Jenkins and Buhler said they would bring their concerns to the state GOP elections committee Tuesday.

Drew Chamberlain, state GOP secretary who often has been a burr in the party's saddle, won't settle for anything but paper balloting, no matter how inconvenient it is.

"At least it's a trusted system," Chamberlain said. "I will never trust any form of electronic voting."

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, dismissed Jenkins and Chamberlain as representing a small, disruptive faction of the party that is constantly seeking to cause trouble.

The high turnout to caucuses this year means that up to 80 percent of delegates will be new to the convention, he noted.

"As a faithful member of the Utah Republican Party, I'm getting very annoyed with Drew Chamberlain and Brian Jenkins," Weiler said. "As a party insider, (Chamberlain is) trying to undermine these new delegates' faith in the system. I just find that so offensive on so many levels. It's not like there are evil forces at work to steal elections."

With 4,000 delegates this year — up from 3,500 the previous election — and some races with numerous candidates that could go six or seven rounds, "to try not to do that with electronic voting would be irresponsible," he added.

Because Jenkins is a candidate for federal office, Weiler claims he has broken federal election rules by sending the robo-calls without stating in the message who's paying for it. Weiler said he will file a complaint against Jenkins with the Federal Election Commission.

Jenkins responded that he paid for the robo-calls himself — about $75 — using Chamberlain's calling equipment. He said he doesn't know whether that violates federal rules.

"Since I'm the one sending it, it certainly would imply I'm paying for it," he said.

But Jenkins does see himself as a rebel against GOP insiders.

"I kind of expected something like that," he said, "the establishment to shut me down."

First-time delegate Judy Moore, a Taylorsville mother of four and a former microbiologist, said she received the robo-call at her home.

"Personally, I think (electronic balloting) might be good," Moore said.

It would speed up the process so fewer delegates would be tempted to leave before the final ballot is cast, she said. But the robo-call also gave her doubts.

"Am I willing to sacrifice security versus convenience? No," Moore said. "But it's word against word."

Another first-time delegate, Daryl Acumen, is a digital strategy analyst for Hewlett-Packard. Is he worried about the new devices?

"Of course not," the Cedar Hills resident said with a laugh. "To me, it's stupid. … It's really a dumb issue."

Though paper ballots may feel safer, he said, "we finally entered the 21st century."

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com

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