Utah caucuses: A Republican experiment in online voting

Democrats are holding a traditional paper vote, but to boost participation, the Utah GOP is offering online voting.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Supporters wait for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah March 18, 2016.

Utah voters on Tuesday will navigate a new presidential caucus system that comes months earlier than last time and opens the Republican race to online voting with computers, smartphones or tablets.

Unlike in some past presidential campaigns, the state of Utah is not paying for a primary election this year, leaving the parties to set up their own systems.

Democrats are holding a traditional paper vote, but to boost participation, the Utah GOP is offering online voting in addition to the usual ballot. It's one of the first prominent uses in the country of online voting, which presents new security and privacy challenges for officials.

State Republican officials say they're confident in their process because it's been used for national elections in other countries.

Some questions and answers about Utah's presidential caucus system:


Utah's GOP-dominated Legislature decides every four years if it wants to pay about $3 million for a state-run presidential primary or leave the contest to the parties. This time,Utah Republicans decided to run their own election, scheduling it the same evening party supporters were already to gather at neighborhood caucuses to elect state and local officeholders. With Utah Republicans deciding to run their own contest, lawmakers didn't want to foot an election bill and left Democrats to run their own caucuses, too.


The Utah GOP caucuses are only open to Republicans, who can vote online, in-person at their neighborhood caucus meetings, or by filling out an absentee ballot and having another caucus-goer deliver it to a meeting, along with a copy of the voter's ID. The evening meetings are typically open for about two hours. Republicans had to declare to the party by Thursday that they would participate by voting online. Once party officials verified their registration, voters were emailed a 30-digit PIN to enter when casting their vote. The online voting system is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. local time on Tuesday.


Utah's Democratic caucuses are open to all voters, but they can only participate by attending a neighborhood meeting and casting a ballot. The meetings run from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. local time. Votes will be accepted from anyone in line by 8:30 p.m.


James Evans, the Utah Republican Party chairman, said party officials interviewed six companies to administer the system before awarding an $80,000 contact to Florida-based SmartMatic, which has set up online voting in the small country of Estonia. Evans wouldn't explain the specifics of the system or how he thinks it's safe from security breaches. He contends traditional voting has more risk of fraud. "How do I know that somebody in the county clerk's office isn't messing with the vote results?" he asked. "I think there's a greater likelihood of that than anything else."

Mark Thomas, Utah's director of elections, said state officials studied online voting last year and noted that while security is a concern, even false claims of hacking could throw results into question. While people bank online and file taxes online, Thomas said, elections officials aren't quite ready to adopt online voting. He said Tuesday's vote by the GOP will give an initial taste of what it might look like when government eventually adopts the practice.


Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are vying for 40 delegates; Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are competing for 37.

As The Christian Science Monitor reports, the Utah primary offers a unique window on the Republican campaign. 

Utah has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964, and in 2012 the state gave Mr. Romney "the largest margin of victory in any of the 50 states since Ronald Reagan" according to 270towin.com, a site that has mapped voting records since 2004.

Romney is trying to use his popularity in the state to turn the tide against Trump. Although he campaigned for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, he said in a statement Friday he will vote for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz because "the only path that remains to nominate a Republican rather than Mr. Trump" is to give another candidate enough votes to force an open convention. 

Called "the most Republican state in the country" by CBS News, Utah's Tuesday caucus could indicate the path forward for the Republican Party. Although polls suggest Mr. Cruz will win Utah's Republican vote, the race highlights the division within the Republican Party, says Robert Oscanyan, an economics analyst in Utah who serves as his precinct's Republican delegate.

"I think that’s what the Republican party is grappling with, is this idea of, 'We should probably get back to our platform,' or this idea of 'We should do whatever it takes,'" Mr. Oscanyan says. 


Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.