Summit County is set to pilot a vote-by-phone app, but GOP chair worries it ‘cheapens’ the voting process |

Summit County is set to pilot a vote-by-phone app, but GOP chair worries it ‘cheapens’ the voting process

Clerk calls comments ‘anti-American’

The Summit County Courthouse.
Park Record file photo

Summit County is piloting a vote-by-phone option this election for voters who need special accommodations, including military service members.

Clerk Eve Furse says the Voatz app makes it easier for some people to vote, including those with disabilities, and makes it more secure for voters who are overseas or serving in the military.

Previously, those voters emailed or faxed their ballots, which Furse said was a less secure option and one that reduced those voters’ ability to keep their ballots anonymous.

Furse estimated about 50 Summit County voters who are overseas or in the military would be eligible, as would people with certain disabilities. She said the number of voters in the latter population is harder to estimate, but indicated it was not a large group compared to the general voting public.

Furse, a Democrat, was chosen by the Summit County Democratic Party to succeed longtime Clerk Kent Jones, who retired in April.

Summit County is not the first jurisdiction in the state to utilize the vote-by-phone method. Utah County Clerk Josh Daniels said that county started using the Voatz app in its 2019 municipal elections and used it again last year. He said about 1,000 people used it out of about 300,000 total votes, and that the county has had no issues with it.

Daniels said the app helps with two key problems: maintaining voter anonymity and, for disabled voters, allowing the safety and convenience of voting from home, just as the majority of vote-by-mail voters are able to do.

The app also makes it easier for overseas voters to receive their ballot, something that could have come in handy when Daniels was in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, during the 2008 presidential primaries. He did not receive a ballot there.

The Voatz app requires users to verify their identities with a driver’s license or passport and then take a photo of themselves. Furse said it also uses signature matching.

Daniels and Furse described the Voatz app as a more secure and convenient option for the populations eligible for it, especially when compared to emailing or faxing ballots.

Daniels said he did not have security concerns with the app and had not run into problems in the two years it has been used. He and Furse touted its reliance on blockchain technology and Daniels said the votes are end-to-end encrypted.

The alternative for voters with disabilities is to vote in person using special voting machines, a prospect some might find concerning amid the pandemic. The voters often have help from friends, family members or election workers and may expose their ballot choices to others, Daniels said.

He said the app leverages a phone’s own accessibility features to help vision-impaired or hearing-impaired voters, for example.

Daniels, a Republican, said the number of Utah County voters using the system has expanded since the county introduced it, calling that “a great thing.”

The vote-by-phone system, however, is not universally supported.

Summit County Republican Party Chair Michael Smith said the local GOP opposes the concept of voting by phone and expressed concern the program may expand beyond its initial scope.

“I’m against making it easier to vote by creating systems where people can perform this duty as easy as ordering junk on Amazon or pizza from Dominos,” he wrote in an email to The Park Record.

He said things like voting by phone “cheapens the voting process and thereby cheapens the votes themselves.”

“Something that requires no effort or thought will be given no effort or thought. I can guarantee there were a significant number of mail-in voters who could not make a case for their positions or even defend the candidate to whom they gave their votes — and yet, a vote cast cavalierly counts the same as one seriously and deliberately considered,” he said.

He said no one should have to “run a gauntlet” to vote, but indicated people need to be invested in their votes for the system to work well.

“It is, of course, just my opinion, but it is an opinion informed by centuries of observational evidence of real-life situations like free or low cost public housing and propositions like the Tragedy of the Commons,” he said.

The latter example refers to an economic parable in which many people graze their animals on commonly held land, each pursuing their own self interest while destroying the land through overgrazing.

He said people don’t care about things unless they have a stake in them.

“Voters should be required to put forth an effort to vote,” Smith said. “It should be a task completed in person, one worthy of consuming the voter’s time and resources — because, quite frankly, people not willing to put forth the effort to vote probably aren’t serious enough to be deciding the fate of a nation, a state, a city — or even a school board or dog catcher.”

Furse, a former federal judge, does not agree.

“I think that’s inherently anti-democratic and anti-American,” she said. “It’s not what our country is about.”

She said no vote is more important than any other.

“I think that harkens back to literacy tests for voting and poll tests for voting, which were employed to prevent people who were poor and people of color from being able to participate fully in our democracy,” she said.

Katy Owens, the Summit County Democratic Party chair, echoed those sentiments.

“I think that excuse has been used to disenfranchise portions of our population through history,” she said. “Democracy works best when everyone participates.”

Daniels also pushed back on the notion that voting should be easy.

“If you are eligible to vote, then we want the act of voting to be easy,” he said, adding that voters should cast informed votes.

“I don’t understand why anybody would want to make voting more difficult or less accessible for voters,” he said. “That’s not something I support.”

Smith also contends it was “ethically wrong” for Furse to install the pilot program without notifying the electorate and soliciting public input.

Furse said she complied with the statutory requirements for launching the program and pointed out the state Republican party, as well as heavily Republican Utah County, have used the app.

“I am elected to make decisions within my purview with regard to elections,” she said. “This is a very small piece of the election process and again, we’re not doing it as the only option, it’s an alternative that we’re trying out.”

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