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Republican election controversy roils before first vote cast

Published April 17, 2012 11:53 am

Politics • Party looks to electronic voting to speed up election, but security fears loom.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State Republican leaders are looking to electronic voting to speed up the state convention Saturday, but some delegates are concerned the system is vulnerable to manipulation, and there is no way for delegates to guarantee their votes were counted correctly.

Brian Jenkins, who is running against U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, has said he will go to court and ask a judge to bar the electronic voting unless steps are taken to let delegates check their votes.

"We usually see evidence of skullduggery every single election, or attempts at skullduggery. The possibility of attempting to manipulate the vote cannot be discounted," Jenkins said.

If that possibility exists and nothing is done to prevent corruption, it undermines confidence in the election, he said.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said the party is making the move to the electronic voting to speed up a convention that otherwise could drag on for hours.

In 2010, the convention started at 10 a.m. and wrapped up about 5 p.m. This year, Wright said there are twice as many races and four times as many candidates running for office.

In the U.S. Senate race alone, there are 10 candidates in the running.

That means there could be up to nine rounds of balloting until the field is whittled down to the point that one candidate gets 60 percent of the vote, or the two top vote-getters advance to a primary.

There are 11 candidates running in the 2nd Congressional District.

After each round of voting, surviving candidates give speeches and delegates vote again.

"People leave, and my job as chairman is to make sure everybody's voice is heard, and I want everyone who was elected at caucus to have a chance to vote on the [candidates]," Wright said.

And Wright said that he believes the electronic voting will be tougher to manipulate than the paper balloting the party has used in the past.

"If you drop a paper ballot into a box, there's no assurance your vote was counted," he said. "You're putting your trust in the people in the elections room."

Wright said delegates probably will get to decide whether to vote electronically or on paper and organizers will be prepared for either direction.

"I'm just providing them an option as chairman, because I've heard their voice both on caucus night and at convention, that waiting between rounds is tiresome and inefficient," he said.

The party paid Pulse Interactive Media about $20,000 to use the system. Delegates will each be given a touch pad about the size of a credit card when they sign in and will cast their votes by pressing the digits when voting opens.

The party has also hired Tanner Co., a Utah-based accounting firm, to audit the equipment and make sure it's working correctly before and after the voting.

But Bill Buhler, a delegate from Salt Lake City and president of TeKnowledgy Inc., an information technology company, said it would be easy to let delegates verify that their votes are cast correctly and is puzzled about why the party isn't accommodating the concerns.

"I'm pretty familiar with the mistakes that computers do make and the fraud that can be done with computers," Buhler said. "My concern is the technology they chose to implement and how they chose to implement it. We have no way to prove that the computers handled our vote on the back end."

Buhler said that, because each touch pad has a unique serial number, it would be easy to print out a spreadsheet after voting closes but before the results are verified and let the delegates double-check that their vote was recorded accurately. If not, the delegate and election judges can sign a statement to change their vote.

Wright said that delegates concerned about the veracity of the results can go to party headquarters Monday and recheck their votes.

But Jenkins said that, by then, there would be no way to correct the results.

The Utah Republican Party's election committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday and hear the concerns from both Buhler and Jenkins. Jenkins said that, based on the outcome of that meeting, he will decide whether he needs to go to court to try to block the electronic voting.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke