The Utah Republican Party is asking the Lieutenant Governor’s office to help hurry a dispute over how candidates are nominated to a court so a judge can rule on the matter because, as the party chairman put it, the top elections office is no longer an “honest broker” on the issue. State GOP Chairman James Evans cited comments by Mark Thomas, the state elections director, in which he characterized as “crazy stuff” Evans’ contention that the party can decide whether to let candidates gather signatures to get on the primary ballot. “We have decided it is in the best interests of the party to not seek the [lieutenant governor’s] interpretation of the law,” Evans said. “Instead, we want to proceed to court for a determination since we have lost confidence that we would get a fair hearing and that the LG’s office would be an honest broker.”
State Sen. Todd Weiler has asked the lieutenant governor’s office for a formal determination on whether he could become a Republican nominee by gathering signatures, potentially bringing to a head the dispute between the party and elections officials. “A lot of my colleagues have called and asked me these questions, and I’ve given them my opinion, but my opinion doesn’t count,” the District 23 Republican said. “Candidates are entitled to know the lay of the land so they can plan accordingly. And right now, everything seems to be up in the air.” In the letter, Weiler said he plans to begin gathering signatures on petitions in January to secure a spot on the Republican primary ballot. He also plans to seek the nomination through the party’s convention.
Would the ability to vote in your pajamas, on a smart phone, make you a better participant in the political process? Would it make you care more? Utah’s lieutenant governor has convened a committee to study the idea of making the state a pioneer in Internet voting. They might want to look to Norway, which tried such a thing — then, according to a headline writer at npr.org, did a “Ctrl+Alt+Delete” on the whole thing a few weeks ago. Utah Director of Elections Mark Thomas told the Deseret News last week that the biggest hurdle to overcome is security. Norwegian officials would agree. They couldn’t do it. NPR quotes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory computer scientist David Jefferson as saying, “There is no way to guarantee that the security, privacy and transparency requirements for elections can all be met with any practical technology in the foreseeable future.”
A new committee created by Utah’s lieutenant governor will look at what it will take to move the state to the point where it can hold elections online. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s office announced the formation of the committee Tuesday. The group, which is officially named the iVote Advisory Committee, is made up of state legislators, election officials in the state and individuals who have a strong background in Internet security. “This is the beginning of just trying to understand electronic voting,” said Mark Thomas, director of elections for the state of Utah. … Cox and Thomas both explained there are a number of hurdles that need to be crossed before Utah could host an online election. First would be how to create a process that allows for a ballot to be cast and kept confidential but provide a way for the election to be audited. Another hurdle would be how to protect the integrity of the vote count from hackers.
An all-mail voting system currently in use by seven counties across Utah for their upcoming primaries could be a model for future voting throughout the state. The Utah Legislature relaxed the vote-by-mail laws in 2012, allowing a handful of counties to try the new system. Davis County is the largest county trying out by-mail voting. The election office sent out ballots last month to all registered voters for the June 24 primary. Voters can then mail them back or drop them off at several locations. Davis County Election Manager Brian McKenzie is already excited about the turnout. “We’ve mailed out about 90,000 ballots, and as of this morning, we’ve had just over 13,000 that have been returned,” McKenzie said. “So far, we’re more than half way to meeting the turnout we had in 2010. When we compare it to 2012, we’re a little over third of the way there.”
How will voters cast ballots in the future? “That is the million-dollar question when I meet with other election officers and directors,” said Utah Elections Director Mark Thomas. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), making available billions of dollars in funding for states to purchase electronic voting machines — then new and controversial technology aimed at eliminating a repeat of the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election. “The manufacturer is no longer building them,” Thomas said of the 7,500 electronic machines the state purchased with its $28 million. “The parts will get scarce, and the technology will become obsolete. We’ll work through that as best and as long as we can, but at some point we’ll have to do something different.” That “something different” has yet to be clearly defined — but as current machines age out of use, counties and states will be on the hook to devise and fund their own changes. “Money is a big driver,” Thomas said. “We had HAVA money a decade ago, but that has since dried up. “We wish we had a crystal ball,” he added.
Only three candidates filed for three available City Council positions in the Nov. 8 election. “In a small city sometimes you beg for candidates,” said Carolyn Jorgensen, the city’s clerk/treasurer. So Castle Dale took advantage of a new state law that allows cities and towns to cancel municipal elections if it would not affect the outcome. Altogether, 38 Utah cities and towns have cancelled their municipal election for the same reason.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas estimates savings to the mostly smaller communities will total almost $250,000. Castle Dale hasn’t calculated how much its savings will be, but the cost of holding an election where the outcome is already known is what led communities to ask Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, the state’s top elections official, to push for a provision that would allow municipalities to cancel those elections.
A municipal primary that may eliminate only one candidate from the field in setting the November ballot could cost a city as much as $50,000.
But other than being able to advance candidates to a November general election through a nominating convention — a process that Fruit Heights uses — the state election code offers little flexibility for cities trying to reduce election costs.
However, efforts are being made at the county level to consolidate municipalities’ polling locations, and there are rumblings at the state Capitol that lawmakers during the 2012 legislative session may look at changes in the state’s election code. “Cost is certainly an issue,” State Director of Elections Mark Thomas said of lawmakers’ interest in revisiting the code. “But it shouldn’t be the No. 1 issue.”