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In our opinion: Begin preparing now for eventual online voting in Utah

Published: Monday, April 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The potential benefits of remote electronic voting are tempered by a host of caveats, largely concerning the security and integrity of Internet-based systems. But momentum is building. (Shutterstock) The potential benefits of remote electronic voting are tempered by a host of caveats, largely concerning the security and integrity of Internet-based systems. But momentum is building. (Shutterstock)

The Salt Lake County Clerk’s office has opted to take advantage of a new law that will allow people with disabilities to vote in political elections via the Internet, a move that will serve as a valuable experiment in assessing the viability of allowing all citizens to eventually vote online.

The potential benefits of remote electronic voting are tempered by a host of caveats, largely concerning the security and integrity of Internet-based systems. But momentum is building in the direction of expanding the practice, and there is certainly good reason to consider any methods that would enhance voter participation.

Utah has experienced a 15-year history of chronically low voter turnout in primary and general elections. The trend is something of a mystery to political scientists, given the fact that during a period between the mid 1970s and early 1990s, voting rates in Utah were well above the national average. They have since fallen dramatically. In the 2012 elections, about 57 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. In presidential elections between 1980 and 1992, voter turnout rates averaged above 65 percent.

Attracting more people to the polls was the impetus behind legislation passed during the recent session that gives county clerks the authority to implement online voting systems — similar to those used by military personnel overseas — for use by people with chronic disabilities. The bill is called the “Internet Voting Pilot Project,” suggesting legislative intent to pave the way for experimentation on the effectiveness of overall online voting.

Currently, overseas military personnel can fill out a Utah ballot online, but they still have to either print it out and mail it in, or convert it to a PDF format and email it. True online voting remains a thing of the future, but other nations are farther ahead on that front, and it seems safe to say it will be part of elections in this country eventually.

Electronic voting machines in place in Salt Lake County and elsewhere eventually will have to be replaced, and vendors touting online systems have lobbied for consideration by lawmakers. It’s smart to begin studying such systems now, and it’s also smart to anticipate that the testing process might be lengthy. There must be absolute public and administrative trust in the reliability and security of any process by which political leaders are selected.

Today, more and more commerce and personal connection is facilitated online. As county clerks look to possible uses of Internet voting for certain classes of citizens, they might also look at ways to boost rates of voter registration. Only slightly more than half of all eligible voters in Utah have gone to the trouble to register – a data point that lies in tandem with the diminishing rates of voter turnout on Election Day.

Casting a ballot in a public election is an important civic duty. Fulfilling that duty should require some effort – certainly in the way of preparing to vote by acquiring an understanding of issues and the platforms of parties and politicians. Exactly how and where a ballot is cast is of secondary importance.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company