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State committee studying feasibility of extending online voting to more Utahns

Published: Saturday, July 26 2014 9:35 a.m. MDT

Heather Young casts her vote with her son Bryce at her side Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at Fort Herriman Middle School. Utahns file their taxes, bank and shop online all the time, says state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, so why shouldn't they also be able to vote on their laptops?

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns file their taxes, bank and shop online all the time, says state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, so why shouldn't they also be able to vote on their laptops?

"It seems reasonable that we have a discussion — a serious discussion — about how you would set up a secure, auditable system to vote online," Bramble said. "Personally, I'm going to be pushing the envelope."

But Bramble, appointed to a new committee put together by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to study online voting, said he'll wait to see what members come up with by the end of the year before deciding whether to introduce legislation next session.

Last session, Bramble was the Senate sponsor of a bill that would have allowed electronic voting to be tested in the state's 2016 presidential primary. HB410, which also would have made Utah's presidential primary the nation's first, failed.

Since 1998, Utah has allowed military personnel and residents living overseas to vote via email. Bramble successfully sponsored SB245 in the 2014 Legislature to extend that opportunity to Utahns with disabilities.

"It's a baby step," he said, acknowledging it's going to take time to build support for even more online voting. "In an ideal world, we would have legislation in 2015 to do something. Whether we're prepared or not, it's too early to tell."

Utah Director of Elections Mark Thomas said making online voting available more widely could be a challenge.

"The lieutenant governor wanted to look at if we were to expand that, what are some of the hurdles," Thomas said. "It would be nice to have kind of a road map on where to go, what are the landmines we need to be aware of."

The biggest issue, he said, is security.

"Security is going to be No. 1. Part of the reason security is such a big issue is because you have the issue of a secret ballot. If I cast my ballot online, it can't be able to be traced back to me. That's my constitutional protection," Thomas said.

The hope is that the lieutenant governor's iVote Advisory Committee that began meeting earlier this month will have identified a half-dozen or so issues associated with statewide online voting before the 2015 Legislature starts in January, he said.

At that point, the next step may be hiring security experts to tackle those issues, Thomas said.

"We certainly aren't going to, by the end of the year, have this all figured out and put to bed," he said. "There are some very complicated issues."

Another member of the new committee, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, also questions whether Utahns will be voting online anytime soon.

"I hope that sometime in the future it will be something that happens," Swensen said. "I admire the lieutenant governor's office for wanting to explore this and be progressive, but I think there's a lot to overcome before we get to that point."

Like Thomas, Swensen said she's not sure how a system can both identify those voting online while maintaining the secrecy of their ballots. Election officials now keep the names of voters separate from their ballots.

"That's a huge challenge," Swensen said, along with an online system being hacked. "For all of the clever ways people figure out how to hack into various systems, I think that's the biggest danger, if they could hack in and skew results."

The longtime county clerk recalled the controversy over the switch in recent years to electronic voting machines that aren't connected to the Internet. The public's concern was eased by the paper trail created by the machines, Swensen said.

The paper records are audited each election and could be used to tabulate the results if the machines were to malfunction.

"We could recreate an entire election," she said.

Still, Swensen said she is pleased to participate in the committee.

"I'm very interested in where it will take us," she said. "I don't know, that being said, if it's something that can be achieved."

University of Utah political science professor Thad Hall, an expert in electronic voting who has helped author a book on Estonia's online system, said no state currently offers such voting, though some have conducted pilot projects.

Voters are often unsure of changes in how elections are conducted, Hall said, but tend to adapt quickly to such conveniences as being able to vote by mail. Online voting shouldn't be any different, he said.

"There's obviously the issues of making the system something people can trust," Hall said. "I don't think there's any reason to think it wouldn't work here with the proper structuring."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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