Update: A previous version of this story said there would be a GOP debate in Salt Lake City on March 21. That debate has since been cancelled. Registering for online voting for the presidential preference caucus has also been extended until midnight on March 17, according to the Utah GOP.
Tuesday’s primary elections in both Florida and Ohio have dominated much of the recent news cycle. After all, both are winner-take-all states, meaning the winners in those states will obtain all of the delegates that will help them in their quest to become the next president of the United States. And it may help candidates keep another from building too much of a lead.
But the state of Utah — which votes in a presidential preference caucus on March 22, the day after Salt Lake City was supposed to host a GOP debate , which has since been cancelled — has done something unique with its upcoming election, too, by catering to families.
For its presidential preference caucus next week, the Beehive State’s Republican Party will allow any Utahn outside or inside the state to vote online. This will be the first time any political party has allowed online voting for a presidential primary election in the nation.
“We’re stepping out on the national stage in a way we never have before,” Bryan J. Smith, the executive director of the Utah Republican Party, said during a recent Utah caucus preparatory meeting. “This time it matters in more ways than you think.”
The Utah Republican Party said its new method of voting will mainly help families, workers, missionaries and military workers throughout the world, who can’t be in town for voting. It also may help Utah mothers, who find themselves swamped with child care and work.
“She can hop online. She can go on Instagram, so she can also vote,” Smith told me. “And that’s the goal. There’s a lot of youth here that may be somewhere else on missions. They’re still able to participate online.”
In previous elections, Utah used a primary ballot election. But the state made a change to a caucus election to increase voter turnout. Smith said Utah will experience higher numbers, too, and online voting will only help the percentages.
“What essentially was our goal was to set out and make sure that every single person was able to participate and able to do it while keeping a caucus process,” Smith said. “We wanted to make sure Utah was the tip of the spear for this sort of thing."
And, jokingly, he added, “you could also just say we’re legit.”
Interested Utahns will need to preregister online at Utah.gop by midnight on March 17, according to the Utah GOP.
The Utah GOP has already seen “thousands and thousands” of Utahns preregister for the online voting. Smith said Monday that Utah plans to have about triple the turnout it had back in 2012. After the debate's cancellation, the party chose to extend the pre-register period.
“There’s so much to show up for. You have your guy or the guy you don’t want. You want to vote,” Smith said. “All those pieces combined have made this situation where the online portion can be helpful so we can accommodate that turnout.”
It’s not surprising Utah expects a higher voter turnout, since voter participation is already up for the Republican Party. As of late February, 1.2 million people voted in the Republican primaries, which is about 24 percent higher than in 2012. More recent elections in Washington, D.C., Texas, Kentucky and Kansas all saw higher voter turnout than previous years, too, with voters fleeing to the polls either to endorse their candidate or to vote against a particular candidate. Michigan and Idaho similarly set voter participation records.
Despite these high turnout numbers, Utah remains the only state to endorse the “forward-thinking” model of voting online for a presidential primary, Smith told me. And he’s right. CNN reported back in 2012 that online voting was popular in local elections in Canada, Norway and Australia, but the Untied States lags behind because most politicians don’t want to change the “status quo.” The Democratic Party has thought about implementing online voting, but it still remains up in the air.
"They find online voting culturally distasteful," Rob Weber, former IT professional at IBM, told CNN. "They bring up theoretical hacking situations in order to make people afraid of the concept of change. And unfortunately it works."
Other experts worry about security concerns, specifically that hackers will attack voters who participate online.
Still, there have been some test projects to determine whether online voting can work. In 2004, the military tested a program where service members overseas could vote online, but it was scrapped over the government’s security concerns, CNN reported.
Similarly, in 2010, Washington, D.C., allowed overseas military workers to download an absentee ballot from the Internet. That system was hacked within 36 hours of going online.
"It may someday be possible to build a secure method for submitting ballots over the Internet, but in the meantime, such systems should be presumed to be vulnerable based on the limitations of today's security technology," professor J. Alex Halderman wrote in a blog post, according to CNN.
We’ll see if Utah’s online voting will be a step forward for voters.
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Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.