Utah Case Study: Accessibility and Expanding Voting Options

The Opportunity: Responding to Voter Demand for Accessible Elections

Before she passed in 2019 at the age of 107, Maccene Grimmett voted in nineteen U.S. presidential elections. In November 2019, she also became one of the first voters in Utah County to cast a mobile vote. “That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” she said when submitting her vote on a tablet.

Mrs. Grimmett is just one of the many Utah County voters who face barriers to voting. Members of the military and citizens who live abroad traditionally rely on absentee paper ballots, which require access to a reliable postal system. That can be a particular challenge for active-duty military; according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, in 2018 only 26% of military members successfully voted, compared to 52% of overall eligible voters.1 Military members and overseas civilians who opt for email-based electronic voting rather than paper ballots must have access to a printer and scanner and must relinquish their right to a secret ballot because their completed e-ballot is copied by hand onto a paper ballot by an election official. Email ballots are also not particularly secure, as noted by Jake Braun, the former Executive Director of Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago who now serves as a Senior Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security.

Mrs. Grimmett is just one of the many Utah County voters who face barriers to voting. Members of the military and citizens who live abroad traditionally rely on absentee paper ballots, which require access to a reliable postal system. That can be a particular challenge for active-duty military; according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, in 2018 only 26% of military members successfully voted, compared to 52% of overall eligible voters.1

Graph depicting 2018 voting participation rates. It shows military voters at 26% and civilians at 52%.

Military members and overseas civilians who opt for email-based electronic voting rather than paper ballots must have access to a printer and scanner and must relinquish their right to a secret ballot because their completed e-ballot is copied by hand onto a paper ballot by an election official. Email ballots are also not particularly secure, as noted by Jake Braun, the former Executive Director of Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago who now serves as a Senior Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security.

Just like military members and overseas civilians, the 61 million American adults who live with a disability are also often unable to vote at home privately and independently.2 Voters who are blind, for example, generally have to rely on someone else to fill out their mail ballot for them or find and get to an ADA-compliant polling place if they want to vote in person. According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly two-thirds of inspected election day polling places in 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities.3 Voting participation among people with disabilities is also persistently lower than non-disabled voters. The gap fell from 7 percent in 2012 to 3.7 percent in 2020, largely thanks to the expanded availability of vote at-home options. But voters with disabilities are still twice as likely to have difficulty voting as non-disabled.4

Voters with disabilities are still twice as likely to have difficulty voting as non-disabled.

The Pilot: Breaking New Ground with Mobile Voting

For Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner, these barriers were unacceptable. After careful research, she and her team identified mobile voting as a solution for military, overseas civilians, and citizens with disabilities. With mobile voting, an eligible citizen can register for, complete, and submit their ballot all on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Recent pilots in West Virginia and Denver have shown that this technology increases voter engagement, offers more privacy, and is more secure than traditional electronic methods like email.

Backed with this evidence, Utah County became the third jurisdiction in the U.S. to offer mobile voting. Amelia and her team rolled out the program carefully, offering it just to eligible military and overseas citizens in the June 2019 municipal primary elections. The mobile voting platform used blockchain technology to keep information safe, unchangeable, and anonymized. The voting app utilized the mobile device’s own security features, including biometric information, to verify a voter’s identity before voting and when casting a ballot. Close to sixty votes were cast on the mobile platform without issue, and voters were enthusiastic about the new option.

With this success, Utah County expanded mobile voting to citizens with disabilities for the general election in November 2019. An independent audit by the National Cybersecurity Center found no problems with the election and said the introduction of mobile voting “was another step in the eventual goal of being able to conduct an end-to-end verified election which can be routinely and quickly audited by independent organizations.”5 County Clerk Powers Gardner also conducted a live demonstration of an audit, explaining in a video how each mobile vote is anonymously and securely verified and tabulated.

In 2020, a Utah County resident became the first person to cast a mobile vote in a U.S. presidential election. Over 200 Utah County voters were invited to use mobile voting, and 33% of invitees cast their ballot.

"In true pioneer spirit, Utah County is honored to be the first place where a [mobile vote] was cast in a presidential general election. We are proud to lead our state and the nation on this innovative and cutting-edge technology.”

County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner

What’s Next: A Commitment to Safe and Efficient Elections for All

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a new urgency to efforts to expand voting options. In response, Utah Senator Curtis S. Bramble and House Representative Mike Winder sponsored a bill called the Mobile Voting Pilot Project bill. The bill allows any Utah municipality to offer electronic and mobile voting, and gives municipal elections officers the ability to decide to whom, if, and how it should be offered. The bill is currently up for debate in the state Senate.

In the meantime, Utah County continues to refine and expand its mobile voting options. “I am thrilled that Utah County is partnering with Tusk Philanthropies, Voatz, and the National Cybersecurity Center to bring these secure voting options to Utahns,” said Spencer Cox, Lieutenant Governor of Utah. “This pilot project is emblematic of Utah’s commitment to safe, efficient elections for all — especially our brave military and their families all over the world. The opportunity for these Utahns to vote via smartphone means they will more securely participate in the democratic processes they are serving to protect.”


  1.  https://www.fvap.gov/info/reports-surveys/StateoftheMilitaryVoter
  2. https://www.fvap.gov/info/reports-surveys/StateoftheMilitaryVoter
  3. https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-18-4.pdf
  4. https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/voters/Disability_and_voting_accessibility_in_the_2020_elections_final_report_on_survey_results.pdf
  5. https://cyber-center.org/ncc-post-election-review-utah-county-general-election-2019/

Let's Save Our Democracy

Every day our democracy becomes less representative and less responsive to the people. It doesn’t have to be that way. Join the Mobile Voting Project and help us make easy access to the polls a reality.

A project from Tusk Philanthropies.