Utah Republicans Conduct First Ever Online Presidential Caucus

When Utah's GOP-dominated legislature didn’t foot the bill for a state-run presidential primary in 2016, it was left to the state parties to administer and fund Utah’s presidential caucuses. On March 22, the Utah Republican Party conducted one of the biggest online elections in the history of the United States by allowing eligible Utah Republicans the option of casting ballots online in the state’s closed presidential primary using desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones. 

Utah Republicans cast 177,016 total votes by absentee ballot, in person or online in the state’s Republican Caucus, which Ted Cruz easily won. All eligible Republican Utah voters voted online were required to register to vote no later than March 17. Once registered, voters received a personal identification number that was used to verify their identity before logging on to utah.gop to vote between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. local time to cast their vote. Voters then received an electronic receipt verifying that their vote was recorded correctly. 

Some voters claimed they experienced technical difficulties navigating the online voting system, but party leaders said some of the problems were the result of voters entering incorrect information and unrelated to the actual online voting system.

The Utah Republican Caucus’ turnout was unprecedented and appeared to be an all-time record for the state’s GOP. “Sometimes caucus states don’t have the best reputation for turnout,” said Bryan Smith, executive director of the Utah Republican Party. “We are trying to figure out ways to accommodate.” 

The Utah Republican Party contracted with London-based SmartMatic, to administer the statewide caucus election. SmartMatic is the same election technology company that administers elections in Estonia, the first country in the world to offer Internet voting nationally in local elections in 2005.

Although trials, pilots and experiments in online voting have been conducted over the past 20 years, it has been slow to be adopted—in part over security concerns about election integrity.

“It’s the internet. It was not built for security when it was built. It was built for open communications,” said Pamela Smith, president of the nonpartisan nonprofit Verified Voting, which advocates for secure, verifiable elections and voting standards.

Smith said encryption and other Internet security measures weren’t always enough to ensure the security of something as important as an election. She also raised concerns about the lack of a paper trail with online voting—pointing to the fact that many digital voting machines used in polling places still keep a paper record for recounts or other election disputes.

But James Evans, the Utah Republican Party chairman, 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."