GOP convention: E-Votes and secrecy

2012-04-22T00:05:00Z 2012-04-22T05:41:18Z GOP convention: E-Votes and secrecy Daily Herald
April 22, 2012 12:05 am

Saturday's state convention of Utah Republicans at South Towne Exposition Center had the usual intrigues, conspiracies, surprises and back-stabbings that are standard fare in politics, but by and large it was peaceful. If there were fisticuffs, the fights took place out of sight.

Apart from the politics, though, the centerpiece of the event was a new electronic voting system that delivered results of the many delegate votes -- thousands in each round -- in minutes.

Like a television game show where the audience gets to participate in real time, delegates would merely enter a two-character alpha-numeric code on a hand-held pad to indicate their choice.

The process was a thing of beauty and was widely hailed as a major improvement over the hand-counting of paper ballots that has painfully characterized past conventions.

If anything, Utah should take this success as encouragement for the wider study of electronic voting that was approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Herbert. Introduced by Rebecca Chavez-Houck, HB 119 applies resources to look at whether e-authorization of signatures for ballot petitions could be done. Eventually (and not too far down the road) e-voting could reach primary and general elections, assuming that the obvious questions about security can be answered satisfactorily.

We believe they can be.

Grassroots participation is essential to self-government, and the removal of barriers and the offering of improved convenience can only improve voter participation. If people could vote easily from the comfort of home or from a mobile device, for example, we'd have grassroots coming out our ears. Election results would more frequently align with the will of all the people, not just the most politically active among us. This is the hard lesson of the Tea Party movement. Results are skewed away from the vast body of voters when a relative few animated activists become the dominant participants.

Care must be taken to protect the integrity of voting, so a study is the right approach. Rapid advances in technology now offer the potential to bring politics to the people, rather than the other way around.

As applied at the Republican convention on Saturday, electronic voting was a huge success. It came up short in one respect: The votes of delegates were kept secret.

Secret ballots are appropriate when someone is voting strictly for himself. There need be no public scrutiny of one's private conscience. But when the voter is voting on behalf of someone else, that someone has a right to confirm what his or her designated representative supported. It's a principle that should apply across the board, not just to legislative bodies or elected officials.

It was oddly troubling that the GOP convention began with party chairman Thomas Wright explaining, on multiple big screens, how to use the hand-held voting devices. He walked the delegates through the process, clearly laying out the simple operation, which included directions on how to change a vote so long as the voting period remained open. It was wonderful to that point.

But Wright hastened to add that each voting device had a unique serial number, but devices were being assigned to delegates at random. No tracking of votes would be done. He assured delegates that their votes would remain anonymous.

Of course we recognize that a private political party's nominating process can be handled any way the party likes. It could choose its candidates by lot, or by prayer, or by appeal to space aliens. That's their business. But you'd think a thoughtful party would want to conduct its process in the spirit of broad principles of democratic government. And one of those principles is that representatives should report back in a verifiable way to the people they represent.

In the past, it was virtually impossible to tabulate which candidates were supported by which delegates. The paper process was far too ungainly, slow and complex. But technology now makes it easy to be accountable. Instead of reassuring delegates that their votes would be anonymous, Wright should have been telling them that their votes would be tabulated by name and released to the public.

It would be a simple matter, and it would be right. Let's reserve secret ballots for individual voters on election day.

And by all means, let's move forward with technology that can help to increase participation by We the People. In the long run, maximum voter involvement will provide the best safety net for our system of government.

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