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NEWS: States Are Trying to Stop Election Meddling. But the Real Risk is Public Confidence

March 5, 2019 
By: Abby Vesoulis 

Ahead of the 2020 election, state officials are replacing outdated voting machines, hiring full-time cyber security officers and instituting post-election audits in order to protect against meddling.

But not every polling place is keeping up.

According to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, local elections officials in a number of states say they don’t have the money to buy new equipment before 2020, leaving them with voting machines that don’t have a paper trail or use outdated hardware and software.

“That’s a concern about reliability, but it’s also a concern around security,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the center’s Democracy Program. “Often, when they have to replace them, it’s because the machines are no longer manufactured. Then they have to find replacement parts on eBay, which is not a particularly secure thing to do.”

So far, elections experts say the chances that hackers could successfully sway an election remain slim, for the same reason that upgrading U.S. voting machines is so difficult: America’s decentralized and locally run elections system.

Their bigger concern is restoring voter confidence that elections will be run fairly, which has been hurt by revelations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, break-ins to electronic voter databases and rhetoric from President Donald Trump and some congressional candidates about “rigged elections” and “stealing elections.” Already, Trump has claimed that Democrats cannot “legitimately win” in 2020.

Frank LaRose, Ohio’s new Secretary of State, says the risk right now isn’t as much foreign hackers changing election results as it is their efforts to undermine voters’ confidence in the system.

“What they’re doing is what we used to call propaganda or psychological operations. They’re flooding the zone with confusion, misinformation innuendo and memes on social media that make people question the legitimacy of our elections,” he says. “They’ve not meddled with our elections, they’ve meddled with us and our perception of our elections.”

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Ohio Secretary of State LaRose recently testified before the Ohio statehouse about legislation intended to create a cyber reserve — a capability that would exist within the Ohio National Guard to keep “highly trained individuals” available for dispatch by the state’s governor should an election need arise.

“I think that it’s important that we look at cyber attacks as an attack. It’s a paradigm shift for people, but if there were foreign paratroopers parachuting into a city in Ohio we wouldn’t say, ‘Good luck with that,’” LaRose, a former U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret, says. “We would send reinforcements. We would send the military or the National Guard.”

He’s also in favor of creating the permanent position of chief information security officer, and codifying post-election audits as law instead of just common practice in Ohio. “There are a few different processes for how you go about that, but essentially what it means is you take a sample of the votes cast and do a hand recount of that sample. Then you can certify and reassure the public that nothing went wrong with that election and that everything was exactly the way you had reported it,” he says of the way audits often work.

LaRose is confident about the steps Ohio is taking to keep votes safe, but he doesn’t pretend the task is an easy one.

“The bad guys only have to be right once and we have to be right every day. Are there concerns? There are absolutely concerns. Do we believe that there are bad actors that want to undermine the credibility of our elections? We absolutely believe that there are,” he says. “But we also have very good safeguards in place and we’re making them even better.”

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