Lawmaker aims to put Utah’s primary ahead of Iowa, New Hampshire

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Every four years, all eyes are on Iowa and New Hampshire, two stepping stones for presidential hopefuls and the focus of big money and attention.

That’s the reason Rep. Jon Cox, R-District 58, wants to bring the first primary to Utah.

"This is an attempt to essentially blow it up and say, 'No, we want to go first,'" Cox said.

In 2012, Utah was the last state to hold a primary, making it one of the last places political campaigns wanted to go, according to Cox.

"Think of President Obama when he was running for the Democratic ticket," Cox said. "He came to Utah, but just to raise money. And then he would spend that money in Iowa or New Hampshire."

The lawmaker from Ephraim is proposing a bill that would allow Utah to hold the first presidential primary by moving the voting system online, giving the state more flexibility to change its primary date.

"By doing it online, that allows us to move ours much easier than it is for them," Cox said. "To schedule a caucus, to schedule a primary, you have to have poll watchers. You have to have all sorts of infrastructure. We wouldn't need that in an online vote."

But the very element that could make Cox's plan possible is what could also make it impossible.

"Online voting is the greatest strength and weakness of this bill,” said Kirk Jowers, who is the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “It's what makes it interesting. It's what allows it to move around, in case New Hampshire and Iowa keep their tricks going. But it's also the most complicated.”

While he calls the idea aspirational, Jowers believes developing a secure enough network to hold an online vote by 2016 could be tough.

"Right now, the ability of hackers to get in and cause difficulties on the front end, the back end, and in the middle are significant," Jowers said.

However, Cox remains undaunted, even in the face of threats from the Republican National Committee, which has warned states trying to jump ahead in the primary line that they would lose delegates in the convention. Utah's delegate count could be cut from 40 to 10, according Cox.

"To which I say, 'So, what?' Our delegates currently don't matter," Cox said. "Why does New Hampshire matter? Because they're first. It's not the delegates that matter. It's the buzz. It's the springboard. It's the momentum that a candidate can get by doing well in one of these first states."

The bill is currently unnumbered, but Cox expects that to change by next week. If passed this session, the bill would instruct the Lieutenant Governor's office to create a secure system for the online voting in time to report back by the next legislative session, with proof that it works. The total cost for the system is estimated to be about $1 million.

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