Hackers, COVID-19 and foreign disinformation create challenges for Utah elections this year

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Dave Sawatzki drops his election ballot in the official drop box at the Salt Lake County complex for primary election day on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Hackers likely will still try to infiltrate government voting databases. Officials worry foreign countries may spread disinformation about elections. And the coronavirus is doing away with in-person voting in Utah’s primary on June 30. So what could go wrong amid all that?

Utah officials plan to discuss that in an online public workshop Tuesday. But Justin Lee — state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — says Utah is better prepared to deal with challenges than most states because it has years of experience with voting by mail.

With COVID-19, “The big concern is just to maintain appropriate social distancing but still allow everyone their right to vote,” so most states are attempting to vote by mail, often for the first time on a large scale, Lee said.

“The good thing for Utah is that 90% of our voters already vote by mail,” he said. “So we’re already in a very good place compared to some of these other states that are scrambling.”

In recent years, about 10% of residents chose to vote in person at voting centers on Election Day — but that option is disappearing in next month’s primary.

“The Legislature passed a bill in a special session a few weeks ago that basically says that we will be all by mail,” Lee said. “There’s not going to be in-person voting on Election Day, but some counties will have a drive-thru option where voters can stay in their car and vote,” mostly by dropping off ballots in drop boxes.

Lee encourages voters who receive ballots in the mail to cast them by mail. “But if someone didn’t get a ballot or had an issue like that, then they would be able to go to one of these mobile locations and show their ID and get the appropriate ballot,” he said, adding that specific procedures are still often being worked out.

The University of Southern California’s Election Security Initiative is sponsoring an online workshop, open to the public, on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. where officials plan to discuss such topics. People may request a Zoom login at https://uscUTA.eventbrite.com. It is part of a series looking at preparations in the various states.

Speakers at the workshop include Lee, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce and Matt Waldrip, chief of staff for Sen. Mitt Romney.

Among other concerns, Lee said the state and others are preparing how to counter cyber threats — including a potential repeat of attempted interference from such countries as Russia.

“Strangely, that’s not a new thing this year,” Lee said. “It’s something we’ve been battling for years now.”

He said use of paper ballots by mail helps prevent worry about hacking of voting machines and internet transmission of results. “Paper certainly helps. You don’t worry about people hacking that,” and a paper trail is created to check results.

Lee said a bigger cyber concern “was people trying to infiltrate the voter database,” and a variety of protections have been set up for that.

Also, he said the states and federal partners monitor social media for such things as disinformation about election delays or changes “so that we can correct it.”

And the coronavirus has thrown a few extra curves this year. That includes counties talking about using younger people at the few voting centers that operate because they are less likely to contract COVID-19, plus discussions about how to protect the public and employees.

Lee said the situation is evolving constantly. While they are working hard on next month’s primary, “I don’t think anybody knows what’s happening in November yet” for the general election — including whether some in-person voting may be allowed then.