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Richard Davis: As Utah's GOP looks to an Internet presidential primary in 2016, be cautious, inclusive in adopting online voting

Online voting can be in the future of U.S. elections.
Online voting can be in the future of U.S. elections.

The world of politics is changing dramatically. A few years ago, the notion of voting online was a dream. Now, it is becoming a reality. Universities are holding student elections online. Corporations are now using online voting to conduct shareholder meetings. In a few nations such as Canada, Estonia and Switzerland, online voting conducted by governments in official elections is becoming routine.

Online voting is not common in the United States. The Reform Party selected its presidential candidate through online voting in 1996. The Democratic Party in Arizona held an online primary election in 2000. Some states have experimented with online voting for military personnel overseas. Those are rare exceptions.

Why is online voting still a distant prospect? Security! Experiments of online voting systems have found them susceptible to hacking, which has made governments cautious about using them to determine electoral outcomes.

A related issue is identifying the individual voter as that unique voter. When the Internet was new, the New Yorker published a cartoon of a dog sitting at a keyboard and monitor saying to another dog: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” That humor speaks to a real problem: How does the system identify you as the actual voter? What stops someone else from voting as if they were you?

Estonia handles that problem with a national identity card that voters use to vote. But Americans have been resistant to the idea of a national ID card. Will they be willing to accept one so they can vote online? That is an open question.

However, another barrier is unfamiliarity. Americans are accustomed to walking to a polling station to vote. In recent years, vote by mail has spread across the nation. Oregon, Washington and Colorado run elections only by mail. But online voting is still a novelty for Americans.

When online voting is implemented, the best system may be a hybrid where voters can choose to go online or vote through traditional means. That hybrid will allow voters who do not use the Internet or simply prefer traditional voting. Those voters will become a tinier minority over time, but they should not be ignored in favor of all online voting immediately.

Online voting may be coming to Utah soon. Next year, the Utah Republican Party will be hosting an online presidential primary. The details of participation are yet to be determined. But the party is telling voters that they can vote if they register for a caucus.

Unlike a traditional primary, voters will have to become caucus participants. Even if that does not require attending a meeting, it may still have the effect of deterring voters who don’t want to attend caucuses. Using the term “caucus” will interest regular caucus-goers — the Republican Party activists — but will repel other rank-and-file voters who may wonder how much they need to do to participate in a primary election. The best approach for the Republican Party is to delink caucuses and online presidential primary voting so voters do not feel they must participate in the caucuses in order to be a primary voter.

Another move the Republicans should make is to open the primary to independent voters. Clearly, open primaries are the preference of Utahns, particularly since more Utah voters are unaffiliated than are Republicans or Democrats. I am not holding my breath they will do that since one of their objectives in holding their own presidential primary is to be able to restrict it to Republicans, in spite of Senate Bill 54.

Another piece of advice is to employ an outside auditor to check the system's security. An election that goes awry not only will interfere with the selection of delegates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, it also will set back Internet voting in Utah for some time to come.

Voting is an important obligation of American citizens. Online voting can be in the future of U.S. elections. But we have yet to resolve the issues of how we include rather than exclude. We also must guarantee that everyone’s vote counts as he or she intended it. That is why online voting must come with caution.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.