Utah GOP allowing online voting, amid cybersecurity concerns

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Forget the crowded community centers and chaotic scenes so often associated with presidential caucuses – for thousands of Utah Republicans, caucusing on Tuesday could entail little more than getting on their tablet or computer, and voting online.

In a bold -- but also risky -- move, Utah GOP officials are allowing Republicans to vote online in Tuesday’s contest. The idea is to boost participation in their presidential preference caucus, by making the process more convenient for voters. Utah residents can still come out to caucus sites and vote in person, but if they wish, they can do it all online.

“The biggest reason is to get people out [to vote]. 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 experiment is one of the first major uses in the U.S. of online voting. And elections and cybersecurity officials will be watching closely.

“Even the most sophisticated systems in the world are not breach-proof … If they say it’s secure, then they are challenging the hacker community. It’s just another source of identity theft,” Joseph Loomis, CEO of the cybersecurity firm CyberSponse, told FoxNews.com.

“Hackers can use so many ways to hijack emails and text messages,” he explained.

Officials maintain that the new system will be secure.

Smith says 40,000 people pre-registered to participate in the process online or in person on Election Day. “This time around, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint any kind of turnout … but we are expecting a very high turnout,” he said.

For Republican voters who choose the online feature, they will be able to cast their ballot online throughout the day instead of showing up in person at a specific time and place. This can be done on a computer, tablet, or smartphone as long as the person has their personal identification number sent to them via email or text message after they register.

“It has attracted some attention from young voters, the number of people who otherwise might not have bothered to go to the caucus are saying they can do this online,” said Matthew Burbank, a political science associate professor at the University of Utah.

This year also marks a departure from past elections in that Utah is not holding primaries but caucuses. They are to be managed by the parties themselves, and not the state.

“It was mostly an economic decision. It’s a lot cheaper to run a caucus than a primary,” Burbank explained.

He added, the online vote “is an experiment worth trying” and said the reason only the state GOP is offering an online option is the “Democrats don’t have the resources to do this.”

The Utah government itself was not involved in the decision to conduct caucuses online, a point stressed by Mark J. Thomas, chief deputy/director of elections in the Utah lieutenant governor's office.

In a statement to FoxNews.com, Thomas said: “Our office hasn't been involved at all with the Utah Republican Party's as they launch and administer online voting, but like everyone else, we are watching the process from afar. As with other state and federal governmental entities, we have looked into the possibilities of online voting as a future generation voting method.”

Smith said SmartMatic was contracted by the Utah GOP to set up the online vote process. The company helped the European nation Estonia allows its citizens to vote over the Internet during recent elections.

Smith said their organization also has a strong vetting process: “They have to be a registered Republican; anybody who didn’t match, they got kicked back.”

Moving ahead, Burbank believes there is “some possibility” state officials might follow the party’s lead with incorporating online voting into their elections.

“I think it was relatively easily for the Republicans to say let’s try this out,” he said, “[though] given the general concerns over online voting, we are a little ways away from that.”