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Editorial: States must do more to secure election systems

Washington state — and its paper ballots — are serving as an example of how to protect from hackers.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Count it as another win for paper and ink.

The relatively low-tech mail-in ballots that will go out to Washington state voters later this week may be one of the best protections available for securing the election process from foreign and criminal cybersecurity threats.

Unlike some electronic systems that are used to cast, tally and record votes, the state’s mail-in ballots guarantee a paper record that can be recounted to verify results, one that presents a far-lower risk from the threat of hackers. The ballots themselves are carefully guarded by county election offices. In the case of the Snohomish County Auditor’s Office, after tabulation the ballots are kept in locked storage.

The paper-ballot system was one of the recommendations made by Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman at a seminar on election security during a national secretaries of state meeting Saturday in Philadelphia.

Recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in election cybersecurity, Washington state uses “a paper-based voting system, we conduct pre-tests, post-election audits, and mandatory recounts, and we employ a multitude of other powerful measures to help ensure the security of our system,” Wyman said in a press release prior to the conference.

That doesn’t mean hackers haven’t tried. Washington state was one of 21 states during the 2016 election that were identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as having been the target of Russian hacking efforts.

There is no evidence that those hacking attempts altered the results of any election in the U.S., but at least one intrusion into voter registration records was made during the 2016 election in Illinois. Among the allegations in Friday’s federal indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents, hackers reportedly stole the information of about 500,000 voters from an unspecified state’s board of elections website, the Associated Press reported.

The Russian hackers were far less successful with Washington state’s election system, Wyman said last year after the report of the attempted intrusions. The Republican secretary of state compared the hacking attempts to burglars rattling door and window locks but finding the home too secure to break into. It was the security measures the state already had in place that alerted state election officials to the attempted intrusions by hackers with Russian IP addresses, Wyman said at the time.

Wyman, in discussing the state’s security efforts with fellow election officials, outlined a detailed program that secures the tabulation system, including ensuring that tabulation equipment is not connected to the internet and incapable of wireless connections. The security efforts extend to the state voter registration database and its election information system.

And the upgrades continue. As part of the federal spending bill, Washington is receiving $7.9 million to replace aging IT infrastructure, boosted by at least another $400,000 from the state. Each state received a minimum $3 million, with more awarded based on population.

At the county level, Snohomish County recently adopted a new ballot design that is intended to be more intuitive for voters and a new tabulation system that offers greater efficiency and security. Regarding ballot security, Elections Manager Garth Fell said the locked rooms where ballots are kept require two keys to open and are monitored by cameras, as are other areas in the elections office.

Washington state also plans to work with the Washington Air National Guard to use a dozen of its cybersecurity experts — guard members employed by Microsoft, Amazon and computer security companies — to assist the state with its cybersecurity efforts, The Seattle Times reported.

Wyman, while appreciative of the assistance, makes it clear that the military won’t be running the state’s elections and the guard unit won’t have access to the state’s election records, themselves. But the National Guard’s help to improve the state’s anti-hacking abilities should bolster voter confidence in the state’s election system.

At a time when President Trump appears to doubt the seriousness — if not the facts — of attempts by Russian-backed hackers to meddle in the political campaigns and elections of the nation’s 50 states, election security has been elevated to the paramount duty of Wyman and the nation’s other secretaries of state and election officials.

The nation’s voters must be certain that when they cast their votes, each ballot will be counted, recorded and reported accurately and securely. Any doubt of that ability to secure the vote can only erode the confidence in our elections and ultimately in our democracy.

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