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Utah lawmaker says Iowa caucuses a cautionary tale when it comes to online voting

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“I Voted” stickers are pictured at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Issues in the recent Iowa Democratic caucuses with a smartphone app are a further reminder, according to one Utah lawmaker, that the state should move slowly and deliberately toward any future change to a statewide online voting system.

To that end, Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring a proposal to spend some 20 months on a study to determine what, if any, digital voting system is secure enough to trust with running Utah elections.

That proposal, HB292, got unanimous support from the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday and is now headed to the full body for further consideration.

Ahead of the meeting, McKell told the Deseret News the proposed study isn’t due until October 2021 and would have no impact on the upcoming general election, nor the 2021 off-year municipal elections. The goal of the study, McKell said, is to take the necessary time to do a thorough assessment of the potential advantages, and pitfalls, of moving the voting process into the digital realm.

“I think we need to slow things down and commit to a thorough review of internet voting,” McKell said. “I think there are a lot of pressures in play to use new technologies and take advantage of efficiencies they can bring.

“But we just saw a whole host of problems in Iowa ... that are a reminder that we’re just not there yet.”

Reports on the Iowa Democratic caucus issues have indicated the app was not being used to tabulate or process votes, but was intended to help caucus hosts manage the in-person events and report outcomes. Nevertheless, the digital failures led to extensive delays in reporting final results and, in spite of assurances by the app creators and Iowa Democratic leaders that the digital troubles had no impact on the accuracy of results, has cast a cloud over the entire process.

McKell outlined a number of issues he’d like the study to address, which include the use of mobile applications in the voting process; an assessment of current vendors of online/digital voting systems; the use of multi-factor and/or other authentication methods to secure both voter anonymity and voter privacy; the cost of an online voting system; the amount of time it would take to implement such a system; and how the use of emerging blockchain technology could be leveraged to ensure the security of an online voting system.

Blockchain technology is at the heart of an ongoing Utah County pilot program that has created new options for overseas voters and local voters with disability challenges to use their phones to cast votes.

The very high level of security that can be achieved with the new technology — which was not the basis of the system used in Iowa — convinced Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner that a blockchain-based digital voting platform could vastly improve how her office was accommodating overseas voters and those who may encounter challenges with processing a mail-in ballot at home or getting to the polls.

Gardner explained the digital system allows voters to use their smartphones to cast a remote ballot, which is secured via the blockchain network and results in a printed ballot that is counted along with other, traditionally submitted ballots. The system leverages biometric security on the voters’ phones and allows individuals to both verify their own ballots and even perform an audit of the entirety of the votes cast via the platform.

While the number of voters who’ve used the system since it launched in last year’s municipal elections is small, Gardner said the voter participation rates have outpaced the rest of the county’s turnout numbers.

Even with the positive outcomes the new system has produced thus far, Gardner told the Deseret News last fall that she does not believe the blockchain platform is a tenable method for the entire voting system just yet, and noted current Utah statute does not allow for online voting except in very limited and defined circumstances. But, she said she can envision a time when it could become a more widely available option.

“I think the technology is still a little premature for broad use,” Gardner said. “But, with changes to state law and continued clean audits, I can see it becoming more possible.

“Elections are a sensitive issue, and any time you are moving into new technology, it’s appropriate to move slowly and with assurity throughout the process.”