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In our opinion: Utah is correct to both be at the front of online voting, and cautiously study security

Published: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 4 2014 12:06 p.m. MDT

Utah is correct to both be at the front of online voting as well as cautiously study security of such balloting.

Associated Press

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Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has convened a committee to study how the Beehive State might proceed with online voting. He has said Internet voting is inevitable, but his office agrees that security is the top concern.

That is the correct attitude to assume as this effort proceeds. Security — the idea that a voter’s secret ballot is transmitted and tabulated correctly — must be nailed down and ensured beyond any reasonable doubt before anyone votes directly through the Internet. If voters lose confidence in the integrity of the election system, the notion of government by the people would be imperiled.

We have yet to hear of any online effort that has successfully overcome these concerns. Norway, a pioneer in online voting, ended a three-year experiment with it last month, citing a lack of security. A small number of people there succeeded in voting twice by casting both online and paper ballots.

In this country, J. Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, has made a point of compromising online voter experiments, with the blessing of election officials. In 2010, he led a team that attacked a Washington, D.C. pilot project and, in short order, had its web site playing the Michigan fight song.

But Halderman is a friend to the idea of Internet voting. He is just the sort of friend Utah needs — one who has the savvy to think and act like someone dedicated to hijacking an election.

In a world in which an increasingly large portion of commerce and communications are conducted online, voting and voter registration seem inevitable next steps. But those steps must be taken in the context of recent hacking scandals involving large retail outlets and the personal information of millions of shoppers. Businesses, while concerned with security, consider a certain amount of loss through theft to be a cost of doing business. Governments don’t have the luxury of accepting any amount of fraud in an election process.

Pressure to move forward is coming from a variety of sources. Next month, a judge in Maryland will hear a case in which the National Federation of the Blind has sued the state in hopes of forcing it to certify an online system allowing people with disabilities to cast ballots privately on their computers.

For now, that effort would involve marking ballots on a computer, printing them and mailing them in, which is similar to a method already in place for some voters in Utah. But considerations for the handicapped, whose secret ballots easily could be compromised by having to verbally state voting choices to an election worker, as happens many places nationwide, could push the issue of full-fledged online voting forward in many parts of the country.

Utah is right to be at the forefront of this movement. Security concerns alone are not enough to reject the notion that people one day will vote on computers or mobile devices. But the potential for widespread fraud must serve as a strong note of caution that guides such efforts.

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