You wouldn't know it from reading headlines about Utah Republicans' experiment with online voting in Tuesday's primary, but America has actually held statewide online elections before — and arguably, successfully.
The first and the biggest happened in Arizona in 2000 at the height of the dot-com bubble. The state's Democratic Party decided to enter the Wild West and hold its primary online. It marked the first time a major public-sector election had been held online in the world, and it drew national and even international attention and controversy.
In the end, some 41 percent of Democratic primary voters cast ballots online from outside polling locations. The results were a mixed bag, but a record turnout that doubled from the previous election won over New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who wrote: "Aside from a few crashed browsers and overloaded servers, the event was a success."
Since then, Alaska and Washington, D.C., have made modest, fizzling attempts at online elections. Before Arizona, President Bill Clinton even set up a commission to study the feasibility of online elections. But here we are in 2016, where you can order Chinese takeout and stamps on your phone, but voting online is still almost completely nonexistent.
The guy who ran that pioneering digital election in Arizona says the reason has more to do with politics than security risks. Politicians want to keep their jobs, and one of the best ways to do that is to avoid massive turnout that could get them in trouble -- especially should any negative headlines come their way before Election Day.
To better understand this and why online voting is spinning its wheels, Joe Mohen, the former CEO of election.com, says we have to revisit what happened in Arizona 16 years ago. So let's do that. The Fix spoke with Mohen in the wake of Utah's online election Tuesday. Here's an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
THE FIX: First, let's address the criticisms of online voting. Online voting gives security experts a "heart attack," Wired.com wrote this week. And the Arizona election had some technical glitches, if not outright failures.
MOHEN: The experts in the Wired article, and most of the others, might have computer security backgrounds, but they have never done even one election.
[The 2000 effort in Arizona] was a global event; everybody knew about this. We had something like 80 million people come to the website on the day of election. And one firm even hired hackers to break the site. It's true the first few hours, the servers were very slow. With the help of Cisco, we learned how to defend [against] all those attacks, and response time normalized. And we sustained all the challenges and everything else.
The reality is it is doable, especially with new technology.
THE FIX: The other argument against online voting, especially back in 2000, has been that it disenfranchises minority, poorer and older voters, who tend to be less digitally connected than the rest of America. (Editors note: In response to a lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates, Arizona's Democratic Party increased polling locations before the election, especially in areas where large groups of minorities lived.)
MOHEN: You could still vote by paper ballot via mail or at the polling place. But we also did massive outreach. We had vans drive through all the African-American neighborhoods in Phoenix. We did outreach in Spanish. We translated press releases in Navajo. I flew in and met with the head of the Apaches (in Arizona, one-third of the land is Native American reservation).
At the end of the day, the voter turnout more than doubled than previous elections — Hispanic turnout was up 900 percent, African-American up 800 percent. But significantly, the Native American turnout was up as much as the overall turnout. That's a big freaking deal, because a third of them lacked electricity. So if you can get Native Americans to vote online at the same rate as whites when a third of them lack electricity, you've done your job.
(Another editor's note: The company contracted to run Utah's online election, Smartmatic, said Wednesday that 90 percent of those who registered to vote online participated, and 82 percent who took a poll afterward said they want to see online voting implemented nationwide.)
THE FIX: Sounds like everything went according to plan?
MOHEN: Well, there are two issues with running primary elections online. One issue is the question: Can you secure the vote? Can you keep the ballot secret?
And more importantly, what does taking steps to allow a massive increase in voter turnout do to results in elections and political power? That's what people don't talk about that's really the gutting factor.
THE FIX: Okay, let's talk about that. What specifically do you mean?
MOHEN: If you had Internet voting, almost everybody would vote. The way it is now, incumbents get elected at an 80 percent, 90 percent rate; if your congressman's been there awhile, your congressman's going to be there awhile.
If you allow Internet voting, incumbents would get voted out at a 50/50 rate. So the science of staying in as an incumbent is to manage the voting systems so that the predictable few vote in the primary.
THE FIX: So you're saying politicians have tamped down on online voting to keep their jobs?
MOHEN: Yes. Look, the people who have the power to decide how elections are run have two goals: First to stay in office, and then, perhaps, to do some good. That is the reason that Internet voting isn't everywhere today. It's not that we can't do it; with the technology we absolutely can do it.
Nobody who has the power to decide how elections are run wants to change from primary election turnout being like 5 percent, to 80 or 90 percent. That's the real story.
THE FIX: On what are you basing your claim that politicians would lose their jobs half the time with Internet voting? There are a lot of other advantages -- fundraising, name recognition, etc. -- that come with being an incumbent that higher voter turnout really wouldn't change. And most incumbents don't face credible primary opponents.
MOHEN: While many districts are partisan, a primary election is often up for grabs.
There, incumbents do have advantages with name recognition and raising campaign funds. But with massive increases in voter turnout that online voting yields, and bringing in hordes of people that did not vote previously in primaries like young people and minorities, it's hard to imagine that incumbents could hold onto the lock that they have now.
And with today’s hyper-partisanship, turning primaries into competitive elections might finally get the U.S.A. to a responsive democracy once again.