Robert Gehrke: Utah can be a leader in the future of voting and help its voters with disabilities and those overseas

Robert Gehrke

If Tina Terry wants to vote by mail she has to find a friend or family member to read her the ballot, mark the box for her and send it off.

So much for a secret ballot.

Terry is blind and, while she said she has liked voting by mail, “I hated that someone else had to do it for me.”

And all of that assumes that the voters have someone to help them with their ballots.

“It’s kind of an assumption that if you have a disability you’re going to have someone there with you to help fill out the ballots and, unfortunately, that is not always true,” she said. “Many people have a hard time even getting their mail read to them, let alone getting their ballots filled out.”

The alternative, though, was to make an appointment to go to one of the designated in-person polling places, where she would still need assistance casting her ballot. Now, with the threat of COVID-19, that is an even less appealing option.

So Terry, who is Utah chapter president for the American Council of the Blind and advocates for the blind across the country, is pushing for an alternative — online voting.

West Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware plan to pilot online voting in the upcoming election. A few jurisdictions — Utah County, Denver and King County, Wash. — used online voting as an option for disabled voters and military personnel in the 2019 municipal elections.

“It went really well. It’s an easy system and the users reported a positive experience,” said Josh Daniels, Utah County director of elections.

Terry told me that she has personally contacted each of Utah’s 29 county clerks’ offices, urging them to try out online voting, but the counties have pushed her off to the state. The state, she said, points her back to the counties, which are responsible for executing state elections.

Utah law allows counties to do online voting, said Justin Lee, state director of elections, but the two primary obstacles to implementing the system are the cost and the security concerns surrounding the online voting apps.

(Voatz app screenshots) Eligible Utah County voters living abroad will be able to use the Voatz app to cast their ballots in the upcoming election.

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies warned that casting ballots electronically poses a “high risk,” even with security protocols in place. Transmitting a blank ballot electronically to be returned by mail poses less of a risk.

And researchers at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year sounded alarms about the security of the Voatz app that Utah County is using.

Notable among their findings is that a hacker who can get access to a voter’s internet service provider or unencrypted Wi-Fi network could detect, in some instances, how the voter was voting and could potentially block the vote from going through.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said last week that she’s intrigued by the idea of online voting, but her tech staff doesn’t feel Voatz has adequate security. She prefers another option, a platform called Democracy Live.

Daniels said he thinks the security concerns are being blown out of proportion by a group of academics opposed to online voting simply on ideological and philosophical grounds, and nobody can document a real-world instance of a security breach.

“When you stand it up against a bunch of ‘what-if’ scenarios that haven’t come to fruition, you can do that with anything,” Daniels said. “If the Russians want to break into the building with a blow torch after hours, they can do that. They can cut the locks and disable the cameras. … I’ve seen it in the movies.”

The cost issue may be easier to at least partially address. Tusk Philanthropies, founded by businessman and venture capitalist Bradley Tusk, is offering grants to local governments that want to expand into online voting.

Its goal is not just to help out those with disabilities, but to expand online voting to the larger electorate with an eye toward increasing voter participation and turnout.

The problem, Swensen said, is that the grants expire after two years and after that it would cost about $40,000 a year for technology that would only be used by about 1,000 voters — a hard pill in a time when agencies are trying to slash spending.

“We were quite excited to move toward that until we had this situation where we have no revenue in the county,” she said.

In addition to providing accommodations for disabled voters by appointment, Swensen said the county has devised a plan to hook up a voting machine to batteries and drive it to the home of those who can’t make it to the county offices to vote.

On this point, I agree 100% with Daniels: “I think in the future this is how everyone is going to be voting.”

So we should start as soon as we can to get these apps in place. A narrow deployment is better, doesn’t pose a major risk of hacking (it would require an elaborate effort to potentially alter a few ballots), and helps people who have to overcome difficult challenges to participate in democracy.

When the idea of voting by mail came along, it faced a lot of the same obstacles, but Utah led the way. Now it’s time for the state to lead the way again toward democracy’s future.