Yesterday, Utah’s Republican Party tried out a system which let registered Republicans in the state caucus online. It crashed and burned.
Would-be caucusers reported being unable to get into the system, receiving multiple error messages, confusing outbound links and in some cases not being able to cast their ballot at all. Moreover, according to the Washington Post, “party officials said about 10,000 of the 40,000 Utahns who applied to vote online were rejected because their IDs couldn’t be verified.”
For some voters who were approved, the PIN they were supposed to receive via email in order to use the system went to their spam folder, meaning they weren’t able to log in even though they were approved.
Utah GOP officials billed the online voting system, which the state paid $150,000 to promote, as a convenience of the future. Busy moms could juggle soccer practice and cooking dinner with voting, and out-of-state missionaries didn’t have to fuss with filing an absentee ballot, they said. Plus it would help alleviate long lines expected at caucus sites. Officials are expecting 15 percent of Utah voters to vote online, according to NPR’s Scott Detrow.
It’s unclear if that 15 percent benchmark was reached, but it’s very clear that many of the people the system was designed to help vote were instead hindered.
To be clear, none of these problems constituted security vulnerabilities highlighted by tech experts during the run-up to the caucus. Rather, they constituted barriers to access that defeated the entire purpose of using an online system. Online voting comes with the promise of breaking down obstacles to ballot access — no standing in line, no snail mail, no driving to and from your polling location. But if the system billed as a massive expansion to ballot access doesn’t actually expand access to the ballot, and if anything creates confusion that results in fewer people casting ballots, then the whole purpose is defeated.
To be clear, the flaws in Utah’s system don’t mean that online voting is itself a bad idea. They do, however, underscore just how difficult it is to pull off — and how far we are from being able to do it successfully on a large scale.