Residents in certain Utah cities may have the chance to vote from their smartphones in future municipal elections under a new proposal state lawmakers advanced on Tuesday.
Utah County has spearheaded a similar but smaller-scale effort allowing religious missionaries, active-duty military personnel and those with disabilities to vote through an app for the past five elections. But Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner said the legislative effort to expand the use of the voting method statewide and to the public at large could help Utah leaders explore and improve the technology in anticipation of changing voter demands.
“This allows us to do a small, controlled pilot so we can prove out this technology,” she told the state’s Government Operations Interim Committee on Tuesday. “So that 10 years from now when we have the vast majority of our voters demand it, that we’ve had the opportunity to test it, to try it, to poke it, to prod it and to ensure that Utah stays the gold standard in the nation.”
Under the draft bill, cities would have the option to take part in the pilot project, and residents in those municipalities would then have the ability to choose whether to vote from their phones.
“The city of Vineyard may say, ‘Hey, this is an option we’re opening to our electorate,’ and then as a resident in Vineyard you could say, ‘Gee, I’m going to vote electronically. I’m going to vote by mail. I’m going to vote the old fashioned way,’” said Mike Winder, R-West Valley City and the proposal’s sponsor. “It just gives you the voter options.”
At this early stage, Gardner said the city of Vineyard in Utah County has expressed strong interest in the possibility of participating in the mobile voting pilot project. The city was also one of two Utah municipalities that was involved in a ranked-choice voting experiment last year.
But while the smartphone voting proposal passed with majority support among lawmakers on Tuesday, the concept wasn’t entirely without opposition.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, who was one of three lawmakers to ultimately vote against the bill, raised concerns during the meeting about the security of mobile voting as reports have outlined possible vulnerabilities for the method in general and specifically within Voatz, the app that Utah County uses.
“There’s too many cyber technology experts that say it’s impossible to secure these devices and these apps and that the technology is just not where it needs to be to be expanding these projects beyond obvious needed areas with military folks or people with disabilities,” Harrison, D-Draper, argued.
Gardner pushed back on worries about security, including concerns that the method requires a county or municipality to share voter information to a third party — something she said is “common practice” even with paper ballots, which require that voter data is sent to third-party printing vendors.
“Nothing is 100% secure,” she told lawmakers. “Nothing is 100% unhackable.”
But she said the app has passed the standards the federal government sets for security for a mobile ballot marking device and that mobile voting presents “no more of a risk than with the other systems we’re currently using.”
Winder agreed, noting that he thinks the mobile voting concept contains “an acceptable level of risk, especially as a pilot program.”
“Think about how many things we do and trust to technology nowadays,” he added. “We trust our money, right? We’re transferring funds; we do our online banking. And the next generation of voters wants to be able to do some degree of remote voting as well. So I think this is a worthy pilot program to move forward.”
The lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections, has yet to take a position on the proposal, Winder said.
Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, and Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Murray, joined Harrison in voting against the proposal, which will receive more deliberation in next year’s general legislative session.