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Utah pursuing improved online voter registration

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's predominantly paper-based voting registration system might be getting a push into the 21st century, at least in time for the 2012 election season.

Lt. Gov. Greg Bell laid out a plan Friday to modernize Utah's voter registration system during a panel discussion at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Utah currently allows eligible voters to register online at www.voter.utah.gov. The new system, dubbed ERIC (Electronic Registration Information Center), would create an online database of voter information accessible to multiple states.

Bell cited Utah's mobile population, including tens of thousands of college students, as one of the challenges the government faces when trying to keep track of its voters. The proposed system would allow states to share voters' information in an effort to keep their records up to date.

The proposed inter-state information sharing is similar to an online genealogy program, Bell said, in which users locate records of their ancestors and either merge or delete the duplicates. "It's of extreme benefit for Utah to be able to compare our records in some match-and-merge version with (other states)," he said.

Bell acknowledged the information sharing aspect of the system might cause a "big brother" concern, but he doesn't think that will be a problem.

"We're sure that's not really possible," he said.

In the new system, voter information will be encoded in a way that ensures it is always protected, said Jeff Butcher, an executive information technology architect at IBM. In the event the data got in the wrong hands, personal data such as driver's license numbers wouldn't be accessible.

The lieutenant governor's office has been working with the Pew Center on the States, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy, in developing ERIC.

According to panelist and Pew project director David Becker, the information-sharing program "doesn't have to be a national effort," but Utah will need enough states to participate in the program to make information-matching worthwhile. It was not specified what the minimum number of states would be.

The hope is that the new voter registration system works well enough that "a state would have to be crazy not to participate," Becker said, noting multiple states in the Intermountain West have expressed interest in trying the new system.

The lieutenant governor emphasized the proposed voter registration system will be state run. "Elections have historically been run by the states, and that's a system we want to keep."

Bell's office is responsible for the state's election process. Utah voting has come under scrutiny this week after news that former Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, who is still fighting for his seat in District 57 after learning he lives outside its boundaries. Bell called the situation "very unfortunate."

"We must make sure that our system is full of the integrity our public expects of us," Bell said.

E-mail: averzello@desnews.com