Are voting systems safe or not? Some officials are confident but others are concerned

By: - July 31, 2018 9:46 am

With crucial midterm elections approaching around the country, election supervisors – and voters – are likely wondering if their voting systems are safe.

What sounded like good news came earlier this month: U.S. Homeland Security Dept. Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told state election officials at a convention that there are currently no signs Russia will be aggressively targeting this year’s midterm elections.

But back in March, Nielsen told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee that the lack of a mechanism to audit election results in certain states poses a “national security concern.”

(UPDATE: At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, the New York Times reported that Nielsen told reporters that the U.S. government had “seen a willingness and a capability on the part of the Russians” to  hack into the American election infrastructure, including voter rolls and voting machines).

In Florida, what should election officials think as the August 28 primary nears?

Former longtime Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ian Sancho is concerned.

He says that a state required audit performed by most counties in Florida “is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

The state mandates that counties audit their elections after the fact by doing a manual tally in one randomly selected race in at least one percent of the precincts. Or they can conduct an automated tally of the votes cast across all races in at least 20 percent of the precincts chosen at random by the county’s canvassing board.

That’s the system used by the overwhelming majority of election offices in Florida, with some exceptions – Leon, Bay, St. Lucie, Nassau, Columbia and Putnam counties use another system to audit and potentially recount votes. The system is called ClearAudit.

“This method gives us a better way to do a recount,” says Bay County Supervisor of Elections Mark Andersen. He says if his office ever got hit by a security attack or there were questions about the accuracy of results, he feels confident about a backup system in place by ClearAudit.

The ClearAudit software, created by the Boston-based Clear Ballot Group, creates an image of every paper ballot and lets election officials quickly call up ballots with questionable markings to verify votes.

Most concerns about potential cyber hacking by the Russians (or anyone else) have been less about any possible intrusion into how the votes are counted and more about the potential for getting into the voter registration system and changing the database. That’s because paper-ballot election systems are “air-gapped”- meaning they are disconnected from the internet and from other machines that might be connected to the internet.

“I feel that I have a system that can do a much better audit than what the state mandates,” says Mark Earley, the Supervisor of Elections in Leon County.

Still, elections are potentially at risk.

Earley cites the case of Stuxnet, the computer virus/worm used by U.S. and Israel to sabotage centrifuges used at a uranium enrichment plant in Iran. The attack was spread through infected USB flash drives.

Earlier this year, Florida was labeled as one of five states that received an “F” grade from the liberal Center for American Progress in a report on election security.

State and local officials strongly disagreed with the grade and brushed off the analysis as “misleading” since the think tank erroneously stated that Florida was still using electronic voting machines instead of paper ballots less vulnerable to hacking.

While visiting Tallahassee in March, Florida’s U.S. Senator Marco Rubio told reporters that by breaking into voter-registration lists, hackers could prevent people from voting or alter the “unofficial” voting system on election night. The unofficial results must be verified.

“Everyone is on that website looking at the results, and the results show that Candidate A is winning by a healthy margin, but then the official results come out and it’s the total opposite,'” Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald.

“There’s going to be mass chaos,” he added to the Times/Herald. “There’s going to be anger. The losing side is going to argue it was a rigged election. ‘How could we have been winning and all of a sudden the results come out and we’re not anymore?”

Rubio has been extremely vocal about concerns of renewed Russian hacking in the 2018 elections in Florida.

Other Florida lawmakers have expressed concerns about the July 13 indictment by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. That document accuses a dozen Russian operatives of allegedly trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, with specific references in the indictment to Florida.

In mid-July, Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner said that the state learned of the Russian hacking efforts in some counties in September of 2017. But the bottom line was a “success story” for the state, he said, because there was no impact on the Florida Voter Registration system, which contains the voting information for every registered voter in the state.

Other supervisors of elections in Florida say they are aware of ClearAudit, but they don’t think that their systems are any less secure by going the conventional route in conducting audits. Some says costs are an issue; others say that the size of their county and the number of its voters can be a factor when there’s a potential recount.

Supervisors of elections who use ClearAudit also say it’s clearly the best tool to use in the case of a recount, especially if there was ever the case where they needed to do more than one after an election. Efforts to get the Legislature to certify ClearAudit for use in state recount elections were unsuccessful in the 2017 and 2018 sessions.

Some 18 years after the debacle of the “hanging chads” recount presidential election of 2000, Florida’s election system still doesn’t get much respect. Those paper ballots had holes that were partially punched, making it difficult to determine the intent of the voter.

The Legislature recently authorized $19 million in federal funds that can be distributed to all 67 counties for election cybersecurity.

Last week, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, directed his staff to expedite payments to local supervisors of elections.

“Cybersecurity has been a top priority of mine,” Patronis said in a news release. “As Florida’s election season heats up, it’s imperative our local officials have the resources needed to ensure a fair election.”

(UPDATE: On Wednesday, officials with Clear Ballot announced that their latest version of ClearAudit had been approved for use by the Florida Secretary of State’s office).


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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.