Utah Republicans experimenting with online voting for today’s caucus

Leave it to the party of election integrity to try their hand at a democratic maneuver that the IT community universally agrees is currently impossible to pull off in a secure manner.

That’s right: Republicans in Utah are able to participate in today’s caucus online.

According to WIRED, “registered Republicans in Utah who want to participate in their state’s caucus will have the option to either head to a polling station and cast a vote in person or log onto a new website and choose their candidate online. To make this happen, the Utah GOP paid more than $80,000 to the London-based company Smartmatic, which manages electronic voting systems and internet voting systems in 25 countries and will run the Utah GOP caucus system.”

Asked if he was worried about the integrity of the online system, Utah GOP chairman Jason Evans dismissed security concerns as “far-fetched” while also pointing out that, since the caucus is being run by the state party, they aren’t held to the same standards as the government would be.

That sentiment is…odd, to say the least. As WIRED continued:

While the Utah GOP may be the latest to experiment in Internet-based elections, it’s far from the first group to do so. These elections have been tried in Alaska and Washington DC, as well as in countries around the world, from Australia to Estonia to Canada. Every time, researchers have detected substantial vulnerabilities in the systems that ran them. Similar attempts by the Department of Defense to create a central portal for military members to vote online have been shot down for the same reasons.

Proponents of online voting would at this point note that it isn’t as if our current systems for voting are perfectly secure. Absentee voting, for instance, is one of the more common forms of (still very rare) voter fraud. But what makes vulnerabilities in online voting different from vulnerabilities in absentee voting are matters of scale. It is difficult to organize a large-scale effort to steal an election by manipulating the absentee system; it is entirely plausible that one person could install malware on enough people’s computers to manipulate the input side of an online voting system — even if the system is secure on the back end. WIRED again:

Computer via Shutterstock

Computer via Shutterstock

That means, for instance, that a hacker could launch an attack on the voter’s device, which redirects that voter to a hoax website, where he thinks he’s casting a vote that’s never actually processed. Or, Rubin says, they could launch a denial of service attack on a certain geographic area that tends to support one candidate over another and slow their Internet service to the point where they just give up on voting. Or, he adds, they could launch a so-called man-in-the-middle attack, which could block votes for certain candidates from getting through.

Furthermore, online voting can be susceptible to plain old manual manipulation, as there’s no way to ensure that online ballots are secret. For example, the proposed solution to security vulnerabilities — a receipt confirming one’s vote — could easily be used as a form of coercion:

It’s not just potential attacks that make this such a controversial idea. There’s also the fact that online voting opens people up to all sorts of privacy breaches. There’s a reason polling booths are built for one person at a time. If it’s possible to vote with someone else looking over your shoulder or if you can prove how you voted by showing someone your receipt, then what’s to stop people from bribing or coercing each other to vote a certain way? Online voting bursts that can of worms wide open.

As Rick Hasen has argued, opening avenues for people to prove how they voted opens the possibility for vote buying or intimidation. That’s true for taking a selfie with your paper ballot; it’s equally true of a receipt for your online ballot.

In a low-scale, low-stakes election like the Utah Republican Caucuses, it’s unlikely that online voting will have that many issues. And it does present an opportunity to increase engagement among voters who would otherwise not have the time or resources to caucus in person. But for a party that has has spent the last seven years losing their pearl-clutching minds over the prospect of fraudulent votes being cast, it’s really something to see them embrace an election procedure that is largely untested and fraught with risks.

They’re basically asking for Donald Trump to contest the results if and when he gets annihilated by Utah’s largely-Mormon Republican electorate, which positively hates him.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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