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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7 Responses to “Utah Republicans experimenting with online voting for today’s caucus”

  1. The_Fixer says:

    Sorry, I have to strongly disagree that we have the technology and know-how to make secure on-line voting possible. We don’t have the needed infrastructure to do it, that I’ll agree with, as not everyone can get a reliable Internet connection.

    One of my jobs is to care for a small business network, and I am very security conscious when it comes to computing. Every month, sometimes more frequently, Windows, Adobe Flash player, Java and any one of a number of programs that we use need to be updated. That doesn’t count the web sites we use to conduct business. Sure, we need certificates to access some of them, but digital certificates have been faked for some high-profile web sites. Databases still suffer from buffer overflow attacks – a problem that has been with us for a number of years. Distributed Denial-Of-Service attacks, relatively easy to engineer, are a constant threat. Then there’s any number of malware programs for which I am constantly checking to make sure that our computers are not affected.

    This is just a fact of modern-day computing. Quite frankly, modern computing sucks. Application programs are slammed out the door under the pressure of managers who want a quick ship date rather than a quality product. The result? Security vulnerabilities that could have been written out if the developers only had the time.

    Doing any large amount of business on-line is asking to have your bank account emptied if you are not hyper-vigilant and knowledgeable about the risks. Because I do this for a living, I get repeated requests for me to “take a look at my computer, it’s running slow and I get pop-ups.” I am horrified when I do, and a lot of it is preventable. Someone, I can guarantee this, will definitely engineer some kind of malware to steal an election. This will happen (and it’s quite probable that it has already happened in the case of polling place voting machines).

    We will need a major change in the processes that we use to create computer software before on-line voting will ever approach being “secure”. This will take years.

    You are correct in your points about the inevitable corruption that would surround any effort to make digital (not even on-line) voting mainstream. As old-fashioned as showing up in a polling place to vote on paper might seem, it’s our best hope of getting close to secure voting. It’s not perfect, but definitely preferable to handing someone the ability to instantly turn an election electronically.

  2. emjayay says:

    Well, it’s only a caucus.

    In a real election online voting also makes total sense. Plus of course mail-in voting. I pay almost all bills and buy things online. Voting should be the same.

    But if that can’t work, a mail-in plus drop off system like in Colorado makes the most sense. As a poll worker, I can tell you that the current traditional system is very expensive and has many problems. Not that I don’t enjoy doing it, plus the 500 plus bucks I made last year.

  3. Alicejcarter1 says:

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  4. Naja pallida says:

    We do have the technology and know-how to make secure online voting possible. The problem is, we don’t have the infrastructure or will to make it viable. Our elections as is are run by party-loyal partisans. Any effort to create the software and hardware would be contracted to the lowest bidding company – who most likely would give kickbacks to the government officials who make all the decisions and get to count all the votes. There would be no verifiable paper trail, no way to double check the data, and zero transparency into the system. Just like things already are with electronic voting machines. Then, just to make matters worse, every state would want to do it their own way, creating another million holes to exploit.

    We can’t even agree on making voting rights equal and fair across the country, much less completely changing the way we vote.

  5. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    I, for one, hail the new GOP nominee “Boaty McBoatface”, winner of the online caucus.

    He’s certainly better than the other greasy old perverts running.

  6. The_Fixer says:

    The potential scale of voting manipulation has always been my argument against Internet-based voting. Mail makes more sense to me, at least if one wants to take the whole getting out of the house thing as being a serious impediment to voting.

    No, our computing industry, and the things that surround it – the Internet – can be compared to the toddler stage of human development. Sure, there is function there, but like a toddler, it all has to be watched very closely. Computer software is only a little better than crap, including operating systems.

    I suspect that there will be problems. With regard to where the Republican party is in all of this, it apparently doesn’t matter to them – simply because it doesn’t involve Democrats voting. But, we knew that already, didn’t we?

  7. Opinionated Cat Lover says:

    Oh, you misunderstand. They don’t care about election integrity for the purpose of caring about election integrity. They care about election integrity for keeping the poor, non-white voters from tainting the election again! Silly Democrats! :o)

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